Tag Archives: God

Healthcare of the Soul

I’ve been exercising more and feel the better for it. I have chronic low back pain and exercise helps a great deal, stretching and strengthening those tiny but crucial muscles around the vertebrae. 

And during this holy season, these holi-days, of Advent, I exercise both body and soul and feel the better for it. 

We all know that we must fight fat and cholesterol and carbs and calories and sugar in order to be healthy. We must do thirty minutes daily of aerobics so that our heart rate will rise and our blood move freely through our arteries to feed our flesh and return through our veins and into our pumping heart to begin again the journey of circulation. We know now, in this modern world of ours, through words on pages and in media of all kinds, lots of “how-to’s,” lots of self-helps. We know that “natural” is good (although the definition of natural remains elusive), that fish is better than meat, that baked is better than fried, that fresh is better than frozen, canned, or cured. Dark veggies and bright fruits should fill our plate. We must avoid fries, hamburgers, hot-dogs, and pizza. I fear that we what we really want is white rolls rather than brown, white rice rather than whole grain, fast food rather than slow. We know a great deal about how to have healthier bodies. 

As I rolled along on the elliptical machine, pushing and pulling, I thought of these things. I thought how lopsided our society had become, as though we walked with one leg instead of two, dragging the weak leg, the spiritual leg, behind. We seem to be unaware that we limp, listing to one side. We don’t notice the odd rhythm of our step, the scraping noise of our sick soul pulled along, for we are used to being unbalanced. Then we wonder why we feel a sad pain in the ignored area of our souls, our hearts and minds, why we get depressed, why life seems overwhelmingly meaningless. We look to pills and other self-help mantras, rather than diet and exercise suitable for souls. 

We ignore our souls as we exercise our bodies. We starve the spirit and feed the body. We are unbalanced, undernourished, weak. Just as we feel physical pain, we feel spiritual pain. How do we exercise and feed our souls to assuage that pain, that longing for something (or Someone) greater, that anguish that weaves through life, ambushing us unawares? I for one want to walk straight and tall and without a limp. I want to assuage my spiritual pain. I want a soul regimen, one with good diet and exercise. 

Exercise and feeding of the soul, of course, must be practiced with as much care as that of the body. There are exercises that help and those that hurt. There is healthy food and unhealthy food. How do we know? 

Just so, the Church defines and illuminates how to exercise and feed souls. She shows us, like a good mother, the healthy way, the care-full way, the diet to grow our souls. Our spirit-muscles strengthen with her commandments as we feed at her table, God’s altar. As we follow her teachings, we learn to love.

And this learning to love is what Advent is about. We await the coming of Love Incarnate in Bethlehem and as we look to Christmas Day 2013, we feed on Scripture, learning that love does indeed have a definition. Love is doing good – not doing harm – to our neighbor. Love is the summary of all law, the distilled essence of the Ten Commandments. For the Ten Commandments give us love’s recipe, guidelines to nourish us. The Ten Commandments, given by God to Moses so long ago on those clay tablets on Mount Sinai, are the prescription for how to love and how to heal our spirits. 

It has often been said that if mankind followed the Ten Commandments, we would live in a peaceful utopia. Probably true. We would worship only God and keep Sundays holy. We would honor our parents. We would not kill one another, we would not sleep with another’s spouse, we would not steal, we would not lie, we would not desire what is not ours. In a sense the last five – those commandments about how to love one another – are largely about taking what is not ours to take, are all forms of theft, whether taking life, illicit sex, another’s goods, another’s good name. And we are not supposed to even desire these things for that transgresses the commandment, thou shalt not covet

A friend once told me that when he couldn’t think of things to confess, he would confess that he hadn’t loved enough. For me I can always confess covetousness, a sure sign of not loving enough. I don’t often covet other’s material goods, but other odd and not-so-odd things I often covet – clear skin, thick hair (I have mottled skin and little hair); energy (I am slow-moving); good vision (always a problem even with thick glasses). I covet more serious things too, more painful things. I envy women with many children, although I am not childless. 

Just making this list is bitter for me, for I know the other side, the true side, to these complaints. My mottled skin reflects my many years outside in glorious sunshine, lucky me! My thinning hair means that I have been graced with a long life. My low energy allows me to reflect and write. My poor vision has been balanced with acute hearing and miraculous attention to aromas, breezes, conversation, melody and song. And my few children? I have a wonderful son with a wonderful family. I’m a step-mom to three more sons and their wonder-filled families. I have eight grandchildren, with a great-grandchild due in April. How can I complain? I can’t. I am ashamed of my covetousness.

So coveting is a nasty thing, a tightening of the heart, a blinding of the soul to blessings. It is un-love for it treats others as objects to be owned. Perhaps it is the opposite of thanksgiving. 

But my sins against God’s law of love are forgiven in the sacrament of confession, through the Incarnation of God’s (only) son, through this redeeming intersection in human time on the Cross, through his glorious resurrection. And with confession and forgiveness, my own pain and shame vanishes. I am washed clean. I often leave church with a happy smile on my face. Joy has replaced the pain in my heart; I know true happiness. 

So I try to exercise my soul at least as often as I exercise my body. I want to walk straight and tall, with no limp, balanced. I want to be pain-free, full of hope, to learn to truly love my neighbor as myself.

The Adventure of Advent

This morning in church I thought how rich a season this is, this season of Advent, this season of coming, these four weeks in which we prepare for the Feast of the Incarnation, the festival known as Christmas.

I continue giving thanks, thanksgiving that our culture still recognizes the feast of Christmas. There remains among us a spirit of giving, of love, of sharing. True, we are bombarded by ads and the commercialization of this pre-Christmas time, but even so, the ads enjoin us to give, to buy gifts for friends and loved ones. St. Nicholas with his bags of gold for the maidens who wanted to marry returns as Santa Claus in the malls to question children as to their gift lists. His presence (and presents) assures them this is a magical, a mystical, season.

True also, we as a culture seem to have lost the reason for the magical mystery that weaves through these twenty-five days. Yet weave into our hours and days it does, and we buy fir trees to festoon with lights and hang sparkly, memorable ornaments on bits of wire. We light our trees and stack our gifts, mysteriously hidden beneath wrappings and ribbons. These traditions pull us through an unbelieving desert, a parched time, hopefully to a time of belief once again.

Those of us who believe already in the Incarnation of God in Christ in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, a historical intersection of eternity with time, sometimes become impatient and critical of the mania that seems to possess the rest of us, according to the media, as though their madness pollutes our holy time. But perhaps we should be grateful that folks want to buy gifts for others, and that retailers offer discounts so that they can do just that.

Those of us who believe already in this God of love and joy and salvation and eternal life need not pay much attention to the crowds storming the stores. We begin a lovely and sensitive time, a delicious time, this time of little Lent, a time of waiting for the great Advent of Our Lord, the coming of this child born to a young virgin in a manger-cave. Today, on this first Sunday in Advent, we begin our prayers fitfully, each evening, saying the assigned Collect, a prayer that gathers us all together, collects our minds and hearts:

ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

We wait and we watch. We put upon us the armour of light. We lighten, enlighten, our homes to prepare for this great coming of Christ. We teach our children the meaning of the twinkling stars on the sweet smelling branches and the four Advent candles we light in turn each week, as we count the days and wait and hope and pray for our redeemer to come to earth. It is a dark time in a sense, a time of watching for the greatest light to appear among us, a light to banish the dark, a glorious light.

We sing carols to tell the ancient story, a story renewed each year, one that settles into our souls like seeds planted in fertile ground, seeds sprouting from our watering. The carols are part of the watering. Worship in church in Advent is part of the watering. The seeds feed too upon our prayers and the words we commit to our minds and hearts in these holy weeks.

Advent is a great reminder. It is a season set apart from the rush of shopping and decorating, or perhaps a season overlaying this rushing busy-ness. Somehow Advent intersects our time, just as God intersected all time and became one of us. Advent reminds us of the great truth, the great reality, the great love of God for each of us. For a few days and weeks in the cold of winter and the long dark of night we are reminded that our lives have meaning, that each of us is a star in God’s heart. We are reminded that “he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, (and that) we may rise to the life immortal…” We are told once again that God loves us… that he loved the world so that he gave his life so that we might have everlasting life. And it all began in Bethlehem on that first Christmas night. It all began beneath a starry sky as angels sang and shepherds knelt and kings offered their gifts.

So too we offer gifts to one another at Christmas. So too we kneel before the manger and before the altar where Christ is rebirthed with each Mass. So too as we receive him in this purple penitential season, our hearts are washed clean and our souls watered anew. So too we sing our praises with the angels on high.

Some call these stories myths. But myths are true. They tell the greatest truths of all, who we are, who we are meant to be. They answer the great questions why and how? They tell of God our creator, of Christ our redeemer. They tell us of love incarnate. These myths tell a glorious truth.

We light our Advent candles, the single purple one this first evening. Slowly, as we learn our Collect by heart, engrafting the words onto our souls, we change into something slightly different than we were before, something slightly more glorious, something slightly closer to heaven, something holy, as we taste a bit of heaven in this holy season.

This is the adventure of Advent, the coming of Our Lord upon earth.

Thanksgiving for Families

It has been said that you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. We don’t always get along with our siblings, our parents, our children. But we know they will always be our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. Family bonds, however fragile, bear stress better than other bonds, but even these can break when hearts are broken.

Just so, we speak of our parish family, using similar words. Here too, the bonds are stronger than friendship, or perhaps different than friendship, more like family bonds. Common beliefs run deep like underground rivers, not always seen, but necessary to the watering of roots. As sacramental Christians, we believe that when we partake of God at his altar, he unites us with one another, past and future. God joins us, and he enjoins us to love one another in a special way. He enjoins us to invite all and everyone into this holy family. All are invited to his table; we are siblings, with one God the Father and one Mother the Church.

And like biological families, we do not always get along. Sometimes I think that because the belief and altar bonds are so deep we trespass on kindness, we assume assent and approval. We might push one another too far, for we sense things will all sort themselves out in time. I hear many such stories of other parishes, and witness such events in our own parish life. Because we love one another, we are close, and because we are close we have more to gain and more to lose, just like a natural family. Our hearts and souls are exposed for all to see.

We are all in training for Heaven, to sing with the family of God and the angels, the white-robed martyrs and the great prophets and apostles, with our ordinary, extraordinary brothers and sisters who have made the journey ahead of us. Our time on earth is a testing time, a time of trial and formation, of growth, of sanctification.

Ideally, within the natural family we learn discipline and delayed gratification. We learn to look out for one another. We learn work habits – beginnings, middles, and finishings. We learn to pass the potatoes and share a meal with one another. We learn to converse, to lace words into phrases so that we can touch the person alongside, to bring our minds and hearts together for a brief moment, like dancing. We learn the liturgy of the family, the morning rising and breakfasting and heading out for work and school, the coming together in the evening, lighting a supper candle, holding hands and saying grace, the washing up, the struggling through homework, the shared moments of recreation in the time left, the evening prayers, the slipping into sleep. It is a dance in which we never lose touch never let go of one another, as we follow the notes and the rhythm of family life. We learn to love by learning the law of love – the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not murder, lie, steal, covet; thou shalt honor God, honor parents, honor husband and wife. The law of love is straightforward, simple. The law of love is crucial, the center of the Cross.

In this daily dance we may not always get along, but the rituals pull us through anger and frustration, through selfishness, greed, envy, and other mishaps of our souls. We might fight with one another, spar, test, lash out or “vent” as is said today (as though we were machines), but with God’s grace, we apologize, we make amends by amending ourselves in humility, by repenting and reforming, by turning around. The family, hopefully, teaches us how to do this, or tries to, and in this daily hymn of life, we school our children to be part of larger families: the community, the town, the nation, the world. 

So we give thanks this Thanksgiving not only for families but for our national family, for the United States of America. We give thanks for this incredible experiment in democracy. Earlier this month we gave thanks for those who fought for our country to preserve her freedoms. Now we give thanks for those who founded her, who birthed her. 

Will America need to be re-found, re-born? Will she survive these challenging times? Will she crumble as the family crumbles under the weight of easy divorce, easy sex, easy abortion, easy love? Without the school of the family, this remarkable training ground in the law of love, will we find ourselves in a wilderness, a wild-ness, a human jungle in which an elderly woman is punched out by a heartless teen or a tourist is shot for the fun of it, a jungle in which girls and boys die from binge drinking, drugs, and Internet bullying, in which babies are slaughtered, thrown out, before they breathe their first breath?

As Americans, our beliefs in freedom run deep like a river, unseen, assumed and unquestioned. Do we take these freedoms for granted? Do we exercise our rights without considering the accompanying responsibilities that support those rights? Are our American roots in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, roots that tap the deep waters of freedom of speech and religion – are these roots shriveling underground and unseen? Are we paying attention to their dying?

This Thanksgiving week, as we gather together the fragments of of our families, those from near and far, those members whom we like and those whom we don’t, we give thanks for this a-gathering, in church and at home, before altars and hearths. We give thanks for our freedom to gather in the squares and legislatures of our land. We give thanks for law and order, such as it is. We give thanks for family life that trains us for participation in a greater American life. 

And we pray that we, a nation founded under God, will preserve and protect those institutions that water liberty and a love for one another: the family and the church.

Armistice Day

The leaves have turned in our valley. Splotches of russets, golds, burgundies burst from yards and hillsides, lining lanes, dotting the landscape. On a day like today, when the dome of blue seems to shelter our land and the sun is still warm in spite of the crisp air, it nearly seems magical. Days are shorter as darkness falls early, making the time between the later sunrise and the earlier sunset more precious.

So when we drove to church through this autumn world of oranges and yellows and reds, the piercing sun upon the leaves outlining each one in my memory, I was thankful. 

I had a quiet week, forced quiet, once my back went out after reaching for something at an odd angle, once I hobbled home from the chiropractor, once I arranged my ice packs and wound tight my elastic brace. I sat gingerly in an armchair before a blazing fire and read Jacques Barzun, The Culture We Deserve. Also in my stack was Girls on the Edge (Leonard Sax), and Paul Among the People (Sarah Ruden), among others. The first two books were for research purposes, homework for my next novel. From time to time I scanned my Kindle’s collection of poems and prose by Christina Rossetti, for I wish to include her work in my work as well. Sarah Ruden reminds us in her book on St. Paul to read Holy Scripture in the context of the cultural setting, something not often done, especially in the feminist world. 

I cancelled appointments and lived with my pain, hour to hour, pain which subsided gradually. I was given renewed admiration for those who live with pain day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute. I was also forced to bracket a few days and create a mini-retreat. It made me more dependent on God. 

We are fragile creatures in a fragile world, yet live as though both (creatures and world) were stable and strong and predictable. Perhaps this delusion is a form of self-protection, for how else could we arrange our human affairs? I believe this overabundance of confidence is also a reflection of the real world to come – God’s eternity – a vision, sometimes hidden, sometimes not, that colors our imagination and longing and deep desire for beauty, truth, goodness, love. 

And so, in church today I was glad to recall Armistice Day which we celebrate officially tomorrow, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, when the truce was signed on the eleventh hour that ended the First World War, the “war to end all wars,” the “great war.” I was glad to give thanks for the brave men and women who fought then and who defend our country today, who protect its fragility, who shore up the shores of our land. I gave thanks for peace in our time, relative peace, having lived through Vietnam and listened to the tales of my chaplain father who served in the South Pacific in World War II. Those other wars weren’t supposed to happen after the “war to end all wars,” but happen they did. And wars continue to scar the land, the people, the world. 

My father couldn’t talk much about his wartime experiences, but we have large glossy black-and-white photos of his ship, the Phoenix, and he described once the terror of the kamikaze raids, the planes diving into the sea on either side the ship. I have his Bible, signed by General MacArthur, tucked away in my glassed-in portion of my bookcases. 

War continues, for the seed is planted deep in our hearts. Our preacher today spoke of the necessity of prayer to end wars, that only through prayer can hearts be changed, can nations’ hearts be changed, can laws that govern our land be true and just, laws passed by such renewed hearts. So today I prayed especially for humility and penitence and then, perhaps when my own heart is scrubbed clean of all ill feeling, all grudges, all resentments, all, all, all… only then can my heart be filled with wisdom to choose, only then can it be filled with God, only then can I pray for my country and its leaders, and only then pray for the world’s leaders. 

I am so thankful for the men and women who protect our beautiful country and our fragile people, our delicate democracy. I am thankful too for St. Martin of Tours who shares this feast day, November 11. Did the generals who set the date for the armistice choose St. Martin’s on purpose? I think so. They would have had a choice, and in 1918 they would have known this day was St. Martin’s Day, one of the more widely known and celebrated saints days in Europe, one said to be even trans-European. 

Martin (316-397) was a Roman soldier, a Christian, who gave half his cloak to a poor beggar who had none. He then had a dream in which Christ appeared to him saying that when he gave the cloak to the beggar he gave it to Christ himself. When Martin left military service, he took holy orders. He established a Benedictine monastery, traveled the land preaching, and became Bishop of Tours, France. 

His cloak was soon a relic housed by a cappella, a covering for the cape, and from this came our word chapel. Such a cloak came to be worn by clergy in the military, those who ministered on the battlefield and at sea, and these clergy came to be known as chaplains. Our own priest wears a cope when he celebrates the Holy Mass. My father, being a chaplain, was in this sense a descendant of St. Martin. 

The sun is setting now, the dome of blue no longer cloaking our world with its bright beauty. The darkness approaches. But we have memory and we have the saints and we have the brave men and women who protect us today. God provides these shelters, these human chapels, and I am thankful, thankful to be covered by the cloak of his incarnate love.

On Saints and Souls and the Breath of Life

I’m working on my next novel.

In developing my three major characters, I want to hear them speak to me. So I’m having them write their life stories up to the moment of the first page of my newly created plot. I’ve collected over the last year aspects of their personalities and the crises that have formed them, and these lists of attributes and events will hopefully mold a character that rings true. 

This early stage often stuns me with its necessary intricacy (and intimacy), as I also look around me to observe friends and family more closely (watch out). For each one of us is deeply complex with infinite layers of experience, feeling, thought. I often wonder at creation itself, God forming Adam from the dust of the earth, then breathing life into him. It is, of course, the breath of life that makes Adam live, transforming the clay figure with transcendence. It is the breath of God.

No wonder developing my characters’ characters is a complex undertaking, for in this way it is holy, nearly unreachable, untouchable. At times I move through a foggy darkness, reaching out to touch the next detail, character-istic. I pray. I ask for guidance. And I listen to what the characters say to me. And what better way to listen than by reading (and writing) their own biographies? It is a fascinating exercise. 

Icons – colorful saints’ images painted against a golden background – lean against the crowded books on the shelves in my home office, shimmering in the shuttered half-light. They are a pleasant company, glowing, seeming interested in my doings, full of beauty, truth, and I know from their own biographies, full of goodness, Godliness, God.

As we celebrated All Hallows Eve (Halloween), All Saints Day, and All Souls Day this last week, I have been thinking about the layers of saints’ lives, the “Acts” recorded in the many hagiographies handed down to us through the centuries. The lives of the saints are often written with carefully chosen (or recalled) details that become enshrined, but what about the other fragments of their choices, their loves and their hates, their struggles with the everyday challenges of living with one another in a fallen world, a world not very hallowed, holy.

And I wonder about the rest of those departed, those remembered on All Souls Day, thinking perhaps the two groups merge together, that many of the Souls are Saints and the line between the two isn’t clear. I’ve known men and women who I consider to be saintly, definitely inhabiting that borderland. I spoke with several this morning as I sipped tea in the parish under-croft (no names) after church. What has brought them to this moment in their lives when they are so full of God, so full of love for all those around them? So sacrificial, so humble too. And most of all, so joyful. I simply bask in their love; I breathe it in. 

That breath of God that gave life to Adam continues to breathe life into each of us. We take it for granted. We breathe the air around us, into our bodies from outside, and we are told that it enters our lungs and provides crucial oxygen to our blood that then streams through our flesh and muscle, circulating in a tempo we call our pulse. I try and remember to pause and breathe deeply, to appreciate this simple miracle. And in this same way we breathe in God through prayer, sacrament, worship, so that He may circulate through our souls, our lives. And I must pause and remember to breathe Him in deeply too, for both are life itself.

And both kinds of breathing form us, move us towards and away, direct us, influence our choices. Body and soul, air and spirit, we are complex unions of these things. Complex and beautiful, true human beings of the created order.

We live and breathe and have our being in something of our choosing. The saints we honored on All Saints Day chose God. The souls we prayed for on All Souls Day sometimes chose God or never chose Him.

We are characters in the greatest story ever told, the story of our lives. We live and we love. We choose. We act. We move from soul-hood to saint-hood with each breath, if we remember to breathe. 

A Stay Against Confusion

In A Stay Against Confusion, Essays on Faith and Fiction, the novelist Ron Hansen, Arts and Humanities professor at Santa Clara University, quotes the poet Robert Frost (1874-1963): 

(A poem) begins in delight and ends in wisdom, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and depends in a clarification of life – not necessarily in a great clarification… but in a momentary stay against confusion.

Our world is chaotic and confusing, and seemingly more so as we travel through time at an ever-quickening pace. Electronics have exploded our hours, shattering our days into bursts of activity, as we point and click, tap and swipe, answer and respond, text and email, moving on to the next message and messaging the next move. Rather than making our world more meaningful or organized or satisfying or even beautiful, we feel like hamsters racing on a wheel. Are we there yet? And where are we going?

Not only are we barraged by information and time demands, but our lack of common cultural assumptions with no governing philosophy has encouraged fragmented thought, opinion, and propaganda veiled as ideas. How do we choose what or who to believe?

So when words strike a chord in our hearts as true, we have a momentary stay against the confusion. A poem, or poetic language, provides this epiphany, this moment of clarity. I would add it helps that the image is beautiful as well as true, that it answers despair with hope and suffering with redemption.  We want answers to questions deep within us.

Ron Hansen describes good fiction as beginning in the natural world and flying into the supernatural, super-natural in the sense that goodness, truth, and beauty claim our hearts in this stay against confusion. We must write about the real world, with real senses, real passions, real loves and real hates. But at some point grace descends upon the battlefield of our lives and those lives we are creating. Grace is this poetic action of light in the darkness. As Christians we call this God’s grace. Others might simply call it art.

The music, the art, and the books that sing to me do just this. In a novel, the story, and above all the diction, invites me into the heart of a rose, calls me to fly with angels. I laugh and I cry from a place deep within, a place that knows these notes, recognizes a heavenly chorus. In a sense I am in love.

I have recently fallen in love with a collection of songs sung by an order of Dominican nuns. The music soars and dives and circles my ears with words and melody that enraptures, captures. It has surprised me that I could be so in love. The tunes haunt me at night and I wake mouthing the phrases; I am so very thankful for this bit of heavenly beauty. They are the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist: https://www.sistersofmary.org/ and the CD is called “Mater Eucharistiae.” You can hear a bit of the music by scrolling down to the video: https://www.sistersofmary.org/our-news/news.html. The order appears to be growing, and many of the nuns are young, part of a new Catholic renaissance. Visit them on Facebook.

The CD provides a “stay against confusion.” It corrals the chaos and conflicting demands upon my mind with its beauty. Father Malachy’s Miracle by Bruce Marshall did this too, as I tried to say in my review (http://catholicfiction.net/book-review/father-malachys-miracle/ ). Mr. Marshall, through his language and homely humor, brought me to a similar place of sanity. Also, Meriol Trevor’s Shadows and Images  (review online at http://catholicfiction.net/book-review/shadows-and-images-a-novel/) brought me into the mind and heart of John Henry Newman, an Anglo-Catholic who made the journey to Roman Catholicism. Ms. Trevor writes with this same poetic diction. I also found this kind of sanity in Susan Prudhomme’s novels, The Forest and The Wisdom of Ambrose, also reviewed on CatholicFiction.net.

I pray that my own words are painted by such grace, pulling readers into a land of truth and beauty. The reviews of my just released novel, The Magdalene Mystery, have been encouraging, the most recent by novelist Bruce Judisch (the giveaway is still on): http://brucejudisch.blogspot.com/.

Today our parish celebrated the Feast of Christ the King. It is a time when we consider the kingdom over which Christ reigns. And I have found, through faithful prayer and worship, that the kingdom is all around us. Every moment of grace, God’s action upon us, opens our eyes, invites us through the doors of his kingdom, calls us with a poetry of goodness, truth, and beauty. There are times when I feel as though I straddle the border between two kingdoms, one of earth and one of heaven, but more and more I am integrating them. More and more the kingdoms weave together to form a garment of glory, a cloak of sanity in our world of confusion. We call this cloak, incarnation. We call this garment, the sacramental life. We call this the action of grace. And we thank God for every stay against confusion.

Passages

It has been a season of passages for my ever-widening circle of friends, and since we love one another, I have walked alongside them, mourning and celebrating with them. 

The deaths – those passages from this world to the next – mark time and remind us of time. We don’t have steeple bells in our neighborhoods anymore, but the tolling is heard just the same. And in the Church, these passages are not just mourned, but are framed by births, Baptisms, Confirmations, and weddings. The dry grass of our elders is replaced by new growth, greening the soil of our parish. New life replaces the old; bells ring for the new just as they toll for the old. 

As Christians, we believe that death is a temporary parting. Something greater awaits us, something glorious, and one day we shall see those we love and who love us. Yet we remain here, rooted in time and earth, housed in flesh not yet transformed to glory. 

In this time we have been given, we have one another to cherish, and as I gazed upon the newlyweds in our church undercroft this morning, I shared in their joy. Their eyes were full of one another, as though each had sunk into the other’s heart and desired nothing more. Earlier we had worshiped together as a family. We had sung together, prayed together, and with one voice boldly proclaimed our beliefs together. We had taken part in the Eucharistic supper of the Lamb.

Baptism, our preacher explained, was our invitation to this holy supper, this wedding feast of the Christ and his bride, the Church. We are baptized near the entrance, for this is the beginning of our path. We enter the Church through Baptism and are invited to journey in time to the altar table. We reply to this invitation in Holy Confirmation. We say yes, and now we don our wedding garment – our spirit of penitence and worship – to take a seat at the festival table, to take part in the great celebration, the Eucharistic feast. 

So the Bride of Christ becomes the Family of God, as God enters each of us, and we are linked with one another in a deeply satisfying and sacramental way. We cherish one another and we partake, take part, in one another’s joys and sorrows. The newlyweds I congratulated this morning hopefully will be blessed with children, the incarnation of their love. So too, our Family of God shall share this blessing with them; we shall welcome each child through the open doors of our parish church. We shall baptize them and through water and spirit shall invite them on the journey to the altar, to their Confirmation, to their taking part in the wedding feast of the Lamb at the Eucharistic table.

We live in a dark and nihilistic age. And so, it seems to me, that the light within the Church shines even brighter, in contrast. But each of us must accept the invitation to enter the light, so that we may truly love one another, so that we may fully see the path ahead, the choices we will  need to make along the way. We must don the wedding garments of Baptism and Confirmation. We must wear the robe of penitence and sing the songs of praise, as we mourn and we celebrate our sisters and our brothers.

We have been invited to love, to share incarnation on earth, to journey with one another, to ring the chimes and toll the bells as we pass through these remarkable and holy passages of life.

Friends

I am often struck by how unique each of one of us is, and the miracle of this truth occurring again and again and again…. into infinity. 

It is like the prism of color we find in light, the colors that aren’t actually colors, but merging into those on either side. Where is green? Where is red? Where is blue? And yet every shade is there, to an infinite degree. It is like the perfect note soaring into a blend with other perfect notes in a string quartet, notes creating melody creating song, a song that echoes in your minutes and hours and days. It is like beauty, this unique person in a unique body. 

And so when I gaze at my friends, ordinary folks chatting around tables and milling in our undercroft after church I am often stunned by the glory of God’s creative power. I heard in a sermon once that each person is like a universe with its own planets and suns and moons revolving around one another. And yet the universes come together at times to form society, to gather in gatherings, to befriend in friendship. 

Friendship, our preacher said today, is something one works on. It is also a key and valued component of a good marriage. In friendship we look after one another, we sacrifice for one another, we celebrate and mourn with one another. We are not alone when we have friends, and to have friends one must be a friend, one must be-friend.

In our Gospel reading today Christ heals the man with palsy, who is dropped through the roof on a pallet into the crowd. His friends organized this operation, having faith that the Galilean prophet would heal their sick friend. Somehow, they open up the roof of the house and lower him in. They have faith. 

They have faith that the Prophet will respect their friend’s presence, lying on the pallet. They know that Christ will see this man as beloved and unique. They know that Christ will, in effect, see him. They are right.

Christ does see him. He sees inside of him, all of him, every shadowy corner. He says, Your sins are forgiven. He sees the man fully for who he is, good and bad. He loves him. He redeems him.

I have a number of friends who are crippled, or palsied, or maimed in some way. For that matter, everyone I know is maimed in some way, be it spiritual or physical, including myself. Yet the love of God sees us and holds us close, each of us. For we are created in his image, unique and miraculous beings placed in our moment in time. And we are given the power to love as he loves, respecting and cherishing all human life, from the womb to the grave.

I have been watching the video, War and Remembrance, a TV drama which reenacts the horrible holocaust of World War II. Here we see individuals who did not respect human life, who did not cherish each and every person created by God. It is a chilling reminder of a slippery slope.

To say we are part of the human race is not enough. We are much more than that. We are brothers and sisters, befriended and cherished by God Almighty, and we go through our time on earth breathing his breath, the power of his Holy Spirit.

My sister, the poet Barbara Budrovich, sent me one of her delightful poems, which, while this one is about punctuation, it is also about friendship, for our language reflects our deepest desires:

Who Am I?
Barbara Budrovich
 
I’m Comma’s identical twin.
 
With s by my side
I make others multiply.
 
Like our Ellipses
I stand for the missing.
 
I dwell in the sky
And bring–to the lonely–companions
Worth holding.

On Angels and Devils and Holy Confirmation

I recently finished a book called Raising a Modern Day Knight: A Father’s Role in Guiding His Son to Authentic Manhood, by Robert Lewis. One of the many valuable suggestions in this unique and compelling work is the creation of ceremonies that celebrate stages of maturity. These ceremonies are not merely for father and son, but for communities of fathers and sons. They serve to give the young man self-knowledge, ideals, and support.

Ceremonies marking rites of passages are not new to mankind, but with the disintegration of American culture, ceremonies are often overlooked. It seems that there was a time when the many cultures that formed our union melted into the pot we called America. Not so much anymore, as we shift to encourage multi-culturism, which whether intended or not, affirms division rather than union. It is true that our many ethnic threads strengthen us and richly texture our nation. But being a naturally inclusive and friendly people, we have chosen a celebration of division, so that what defines America – both internationally and domestically – has become increasingly difficult to state.

This morning when we celebrated Holy Confirmation in our parish church, I was thankful for this moment of definition. The bishop laid his hands upon the heads of the confirmands as they knelt on the steps leading to the altar. As Anglican-Catholics, we believe that Confirmation marks publicly the moment when children become adults in the Church. For adult confirmands it marks a new adulthood in the Church, as they witness to their beliefs. The younger confirmands are asked to confirm the promises that were made for them as infants in Baptism. They are of an age of reason, no longer children, and they can promise with understanding. “Do  you promise to follow Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?” the bishop asks them. The bishop then prays that they be strengthened by the Holy Ghost, the Comforter, and that they be given the Holy Ghost’s gifts of grace: wisdom and understanding, counsel and ghostly strength, knowledge and godliness, and lastly, holy fear.

They will need these knightly gifts, I thought, as they live out their faith in a world often hostile to Christianity. They shall don the shield of faith and the armor of righteousness, and the Church, the Body of Christ, shall comfort and nurture them throughout their lives, through marriage, childbirth, sickness, even in their dying. God shall never abandon them. As a shepherd he shall lead them beside still waters. He shall restore their souls.

It was particularly fitting, on this bright Sunday morning as September gives way to October, that we celebrated these Confirmations, these confirmings of faith and receivings of the Holy Ghost, on the feast day of St. Michael and All Angels. As the lector read from Holy Scripture, we heard the account of the great war in heaven when Michael the Archangel threw out Lucifer and his angels. “The great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth and his angels were cast out with him… And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony… Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.” (Revelation 12:7+)

Angels and devils are not common beliefs today. We might speak of angels whimsically as though reliving the fairy tales of our childhood. But devils are definitely not the stuff of acceptable conversation. Yet Scripture affirms their existence. Demons are said to be angels – pure spirits created separately from mankind – who have rebelled against God and now are given a span of time to scurry among the people of the earth, wreaking havoc where they can and undoing the good that is being done.

The good angels, however, are with us too, and we can call upon them. They are all around us, if welcome. And Confirmation – that affirmation of faith in Jesus Christ – welcomes them. These angels help us to be modern-day knights. They guide us on our journey on earth as we head to heaven. At times, I believe, they protect us from bodily harm. Dear friends of mine recently survived a rear-end collision, emerging from their totaled sedan shaken but, it turns out, having suffered only minor wounds. Angels were there, I am sure, as the drunk driver slammed into their car, stopped at a red light. Angels took some of the brunt of that crash.

So with ceremony and prayer and song, with ritual and the dance of the Eucharist, we re-affirm who we are, what we are, where we are going. We re-affirm to whom we belong, and with the company of the angelic host we are given our own wings to heaven. With the gifts of the Holy Ghost we are embraced by the Body of Christ.

On Flying Dancing Halls

It is a glorious and satisfying thing to discover an author who speaks to you in new and miraculous ways, an author sending you on a mission to read everything he has ever written. I have discovered authors like this over the years, with Lewis, Tolkien, Austen, Dostoevsky. I went through a Sherlock Holmes period, a Dickens period, and as a child I read every Nancy Drew that the library offered. On the other hand, I did not feel this way about Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Sartre, Camus, Woolf, Ibsen, or Henry James. I fear I gave Shakespeare no more attention than was required in my Literature major, having to work too hard on his poetic diction. These authors come to mind now, but there were dozens more – some who invited me on another leg of the journey, and some who didn’t.

So when I received the small used volume titled Father Malachy’s Miracle by Bruce Marshall in the mail, the book having been transported through the air from London, I opened it not knowing if it would challenge or change me. I’ve read it twice now, since I will be reviewing it on CatholicFiction.net. I’m sure I shall read it many more times, and be warned that I am cornering the market on any other books by Mr. Marshall that I can find. Alas, his books are out of print, something I hope to remedy one day.

But getting back to Father Malachy and his miracle, for he has become part of the peopled universe in my giddy brain. The book is, as the title implies, about miracles. The writing is dense, poetic, with rhythmically long sentences that flow like a sweet river to a welcoming sea. The metaphors stun me with their humorous and loving descriptions of ordinary people. God shines brightly through this lay-Catholic writer. When I am not sighing with authorial envy or jotting down ideas to use one day, I am nodding my head in agreement (aha, finally someone has written exactly what I think, and yes, that’s exactly how it is or was…), or I am laughing out loud.

One of many delicious passages is the author’s description of the Bishop’s Bad Brother (the “Bee Bee Bee”), a man of the world who enjoys dancing halls and wine bars:

The Bee Bee Bee was a simple soul who lived, as do many souls less simple than he, as though his sense perceptions were the only realities and as though arm-chairs and pork pies and pretty girls were exclusively and finally arm-chairs, pork pies and pretty girls.

We learn he has little interest in scientific mysteries or theological mysteries or angels dancing on the head of a pin. He lives for the moment, but he is a mystic:

Like most of his kind, he would have scorned the name of mystic even if he had known precisely what it meant. And yet that was what he was: a mystic, an inverted mystic who found in beer and dancing instructresses what tired business men found in golf, and worldly young women in lovemaking, and monks and nuns in prayer and contemplation: an escape from his own personality or rather a taking of it and plunging it in something bigger than and exterior to itself. 

An inverted mystic. He escapes from his own personality by plunging it in something bigger. I have often thought we are all mystics in this sense, that everyone has a desire to lose themselves in something or someone. We say we fall in love, we say we are swept away by a movie or a book. We want to jump on bandwagons because they are large and powerful and tell us what to think. When we say we are swept up or swept away we sigh with pleasure simply in the recollection. We plunge into work or play or fashion, fads, or Facebook. We lose ourselves in nature – beneath giant redwoods, beside a crashing sea, within a rose garden. We soar outside of time, killing it.

Perhaps this urge to lose ourselves in something bigger is an innate desire for God, a desire for our Creator, a desire for our Heavenly Father who calls us home, invites us to his table again and again, back to himself. I often think the Church is the messenger, the host of that invitation, or the invitation itself, to dine with God, dine on God in the Eucharist. Through his Church, God welcomes us into his own dancing hall, with his own family to love, sisters and brothers who return that love. We are brought inside his circle, made members of the Body of Christ, and we know we are  home, that we be-long, that we are longed-for.

We are mystics and we have found our heart’s desire. And oddly enough, in finding our Creator, we rediscover our true selves. For who knows me better than the one who made me?

The idea of the inverted mystic was one small miracle in this little book of miracles, a sweet novel set in Scotland in the 1930’s in which a dancing hall flies through the air (by power of the Holy Ghost) to land on an island called the Bass Rock. And as we consider the flying dancing hall we also consider other movements of electrons in our world, changes made to bread and wine, resurrections not governed by scientific theory, events we call supernatural. We consider miracles and the Creator of our world, the one who has power to change that world’s matter.

I must end this here, for I have just opened a small brown paper parcel containing Bruce Marshall’s The World, the Flesh, and Father Smith. The invitation is loud and compelling.

There may be echoes of Father Malachy in my next novel about a deserted chapel in a park in a suburb of San Francisco. Father Malachy, or his twin brother, may fly from Scotland and into my pages, flit across a great sea, and land in the present. But such is the stuff of miracles.