In all truth I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)
Knowing his audience, Jesus used an agrarian metaphor to talk about his impending death. It seems especially resonant as we celebrate our second pandemic Easter.
From what I read, a lot of people have turned to gardening and other ways of being in touch with the earth as a way of coping with the stress and isolation of this past year. I am not even an accomplished hobby gardener, but I have always been involved in some kind of tending of the soil around my home, and it has been consoling during this time.
I live in a city – my garden consists of some pots around my patio for flowers and herbs, and a small raised bed for vegetables. But they give me an opportunity to immerse myself in the changing seasons and the rhythm of life. For us in the northern hemisphere, the coinciding of Easter with spring makes the words of Jesus even more tangible. A barren box of soil becomes a “grave” for some seeds – and we delight at the little green shoots that emerge in the warming rays of the sun. Soon we will have abundant blooms to brighten our days, and fruits and vegetables to grace our tables.
The message of Easter for Christians is that, as God raised Jesus from the dead, so too will God bring life out of every death that we experience. Death will never again have the last word. This pandemic Easter, as we remember all of the losses of the past year, we are invited to trust in that promise and to open ourselves to the new life that God wants to bring to birth within us and around us.
Just as in our gardens we support nature in planting, watering, weeding, and such, so we can support God in bringing life out of the deaths around us. We are already doing it – from those who used their gifts to develop vaccines to those working to change the systems of injustice brought to sharper focus in the crisis, to those who reach out with helping and healing touches to family and neighbors.
Pope Francis says:
"Nurturing and cherishing creation is a command God gives not only at the beginning of history, but to each of us. It is part of his plan; it means causing the world to grow responsibly, transforming it so that it may be a garden, a habitable place for everyone." (General Audience, June 5, 2013)
In this Easter season, how will I cherish the gift of life and how might I tend the garden entrusted to me – in my heart, in relationships, in community, in the earth? Where can I plant seeds of hope? Where can I pour water of compassion? Where can I till the soil by asking questions? What relationships need some tending? How can I share the bounty of the earth and God’s goodness with those most in need? What small actions on my part will help the earth be a more habitable place for everyone?
Are you not aware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus
were baptized into his death?
Through baptism into his death
we were buried with him,
so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead
by the glory of the Father,
we too might walk in newness of life.
Our only hope is to march ourselves to the throne of God
and in loud lament cry out the pain that lives in our souls. (Ann Weems)
For much of 2020 and on into the first weeks of 2021, it has seemed that things could only get worse, beyond our wildest imagination and greatest fears. What do we do? Where do we turn?
When Jesus was facing his death on the cross, in anguish and likely at a loss for words, he quoted Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In the Jewish and Christian traditions we are blessed with the practice of lamentation – though it is largely lost in many circles, especially in our North American culture. We worry that a lament sounds like a lack of faith – when in fact it is just the opposite. Despair is lack of faith - doubt is a seeking, a desiring of faith, a questioning in search of relationship. A lament, then, is not giving up on faith, but a faithful cry to the one who weeps with us. In fact, the purpose of a lament is to help renew trust and confidence in God.
Some laments are personal, some are communal. Some refer to outside situations like captors or pandemics; some refer to personal loss or failing. All include acknowledgment of our relationship with God, a complaint or description of suffering, a plea for help, and a “vote of confidence” in God’s ongoing presence.
With God we can be our truest selves. God’s family is not one of those where you have to put on a front and pretend that all is wonderful when it’s not. And that is the purpose of the prayer of lament – for individuals or families or communities or nations. Trusting that God is with us, in a lament we share our pain – and ask for help. And while we can tell God the outcome we desire, like Jesus in the garden we hope we can say “Not my will but yours be done”. Knowing that God’s will is for us to live fully in freedom.
At this moment in history, the prayer of lament might be the only appropriate response. Honest prayer strengthens our relationship with God, who will guide our decisions and actions in the days ahead.
For Jesus and his Jewish companions, and for Christians and many people of good will today, the Psalms are models of many kinds of prayer, with over a third of them lamentation. Here is a selection that might spark your own prayer in the coming days. (and a link to prayers for the end of 2020.)
How many people say that they are just waiting for 2020 to end? In the Church calendar, it just did! Sunday, November 29th, is the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new Church year. In contrast to the commercial world which pushes the Christmas decorations earlier each year, our Catholic tradition celebrates the distinct but related seasons of Advent and Christmas. And the spirituality and practice of Advent might offer us particular insight and strength in this year of pandemic and division.
Our observance of Advent, with its quiet, reflective waiting and watching, is very different from the hectic activity of the usual secular season. Advertisements would lead us to believe that what we do makes or breaks Christmas; we have to make it happen. Our frenetic preparation seems all important. As people of faith, we are challenged to focus not so much on what we do but on what God has done, is doing, and will continue to do for us. Through our celebration of Advent, we open ourselves to God preparing us for Christ’s coming:
• in the past — Jesus was born into the world, a moment in time with great significance for history.
At this moment in time it is good to remember that his birth is proof that God keeps promises.
• in the present — as Jesus appeared to the first frightened disciples after his death on the cross, so
he continues to live in the lives and hearts of believers today. Even in (and perhaps especially in)
fraught circumstances, we are invited to recognize his living presence in our lives.
• in the future— the coming of the Lord at the end of time. In fact, the liturgy of Advent tells the
story of Christ’s coming backward, beginning with this final coming.
This year the scriptures for Sundays of the Advent season (in the Catholic or Common Lectionary) invite us to three actions or attitudes which are quite pertinent to our time:
Throughout Advent we wait in joyful expectation of the coming of the Lord. In our world, so much is instantaneous (Google info, Amazon Prime) – on the other hand, in these past few months it seems that our pandemic nightmare will drag on forever. Yet this season calls us to practice patience. We know that Christ came into our world that long-ago night in Bethlehem. But the kingdom he came to inaugurate is a long way from fulfillment, leaving us to experience it in the state some theologians call “already and not yet”. The prophets and John the Baptist remind us what God’s kingdom looks like: straight paths, mountains made low and valleys raised, mercy and justice, when “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Our Advent waiting is active, as we prepare the way for the presence of Jesus now and in the fullness of time.
In the gospel for the First Sunday of Advent, Jesus tells his disciples to stay awake, to be constantly on watch. Our Advent call is also to watch. Our lives are filled with demands for our attention, from daily responsibilities to the lure of advertising or cultural norms which promise happiness, wealth, or power. As events of the past year have caused us to turn to virtual sources of news, connections and experiences, many of us have felt overwhelmed by information, mis-information, the noise of political conflict and the barrage of frightening health and safety updates and protocols. Without judgment, in the midst of all of this, Jesus asks us to be constantly on watch – for his presence in our lives and in our world, for the truth, for those who need us to be their voice or the hand of God.
It is no accident that children are the face of Christmas, because they are filled with wonder. But as adults, we have heard the story so many times; we have seen dreams of peace die; we doubt that we can make a difference. Advent invites us to open ourselves to wonder: at God’s unconditional love for each of us, expressed in presence in every moment of our lives; at the mystery of the Incarnation: that God became one of us, and, in the words of our liturgy, “gives our mortal nature immortal value”; at the promise of hope for peace and justice for all the earth.
Mary is a perfect model for Advent. For the first coming of Jesus, she waited for his birth – a mystery she could not comprehend but accepted because of her deep faith and her knowledge of all the ways that God had been with her people through generations. In his growing up and in his ministry, she watched – and followed as his first disciple, learning from him as he learned from her. And she wondered, which allowed God to work through her to advance the plan of salvation: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior. (Luke 1:46)
Let us take the time to enjoy this special season. Not only will we be enriched by its gifts as we go along, we will probably experience its fruits even more in the Christmas season to come. May our keeping of Christmas, however adapted and diminished, overflow into our daily lives and help to prepare a way for Christ in our world.
Thanksgiving Day is usually a handy reminder to take time out to reflect on blessings - in the theme of 2020, this observance brings up so many divergent feelings. How do I hold and express both gratitude and loss, hope and discouragement, patience and frustration . . .?
I know it would be good to pray but don't have the words. Luckily for all of us, a few people more centered and/or eloquent have written Thanksgiving prayers that fit this unique moment. Check them out:
Rebecca Ruiz has a Truth-Telling Thanksgiving Prayer at IgnatianSpirituality.com.
In America magazine, James Martin, S. J. has A Thanksgiving Prayer in the time of Covid.
Their words are help me to feel the presence of God which I do trust is with us always.
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with all my heart,
for you have heard the words of my mouth;
When I called, you answered me;
you built up strength within me. (Psalm 138:1-2)
The world will be saved by beauty.
This famous quote from the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky was a favorite of Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement. She said it so often, in fact, that her granddaughter, Kate Hennessey, used it as the title of her book about her grandmother. (A worthy read, by the way.)
There is so much in our world right now that isn’t beautiful, but I believe that opening ourselves to beauty can help us to respond in ways that are more loving and fruitful.
So I collected a few things that are beautiful to me – and suggest that you might do the same as a grounding meditation this week.
I took this photo on my last trip to Yosemite, a place which is undeniably beautiful, the source of many wonderful personal memories, as well as a reminder that nature is much bigger than we are.
Listening to music is an experience of beauty – Elevazione is a piece that touches my soul. And its story is intriguing as well – the composer, Domenico Zipoli (1688-1726), was a church organist and composer who became a Jesuit in order to teach music as a missionary in Paraguay and Peru. He taught classical music to the indigeneous people while coming to love their music and instruments. Talk about openness to beauty!
In a different genre, the jazz music of Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond brings me joy. Take Five is the ringtone on my phone that signals a call from one of my children.
In a time when words are often used to divide, it is good to remember that beauty is also found in them. The 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded recently to Louise Glück for writing “that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” Her poem Snowdrops inspires me with hope in the resilience of life:
I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring –
afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy
in the raw wind of the new world.
From The Wild Iris
And from Dorothy Day again, “The final word is love.”
This week I’ve been struck by some stories of young people responding to needs in ways that give me hope for the world (despite the actions of many adult leaders!).
Carver, a 5 year old in Oregon, heard about the heroic efforts of firefighters in his home state. He and his grandmother purchased supplies for a local drive to support them, and Carver decided that perhaps they would be cheered by a Baby Yoda doll. So he included it with a note saying, “Here is a friend for you, in case you get lonely. Love, Carver.” Needless to say, the toy was a hit, accompanying firefighters everywhere - they've posted photos of their escapades.
Cartier Carey is an 11 year old in Vermont who learned about the particular difficulties during the pandemic for single mothers who lost work and childcare options – and couldn’t afford diapers even when they became sporadically available. So he set up a lemonade stand to raise money to help – eventually purchasing over 22,000 diapers to give away.
Wyatt Jones is a teenaged worker at McDonalds in Waynesville, Ohio. A young mother with 3 tired and cranky kids got to the drive-through window to pick up her order from him, and realized that she had forgotten her wallet – so he reached for his and paid for their meal, refusing reimbursement when she returned later to thank him.
The report on Wyatt’s act was entitled, Random Act of Kindness, and my daughter Natalie pointed out that it wasn’t a random act. Those can make your day, such as when someone pays your bridge toll or Starbucks order. But what is striking about all three of these stories is that they were acts of empathy and solidarity, the result of paying attention to others and their needs.
The question “Who is my neighbor?” is what prompted Jesus to tell the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). These three young people recognized as neighbors people in need who they didn’t know. Their responses were pure generosity – wonderful gifts to those who received them, but also building blocks for a better world. A famous neighbor, Fred Rogers, said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”
Well, there are scary things in the news – so let’s look to these helpers, as well as the others around us. And let’s join them. Our response doesn’t have to be money or goods; sometimes what is needed by our neighbor is a smile, a phone call, a few extra minutes to listen or a thank-you.
St. Ignatius Loyola said “Love is shown more in deeds than in words.”
St. Francis of Assisi (might have) said, “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary use words.”
St. Teresa of Kolkata said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
Today is the anniversary of the founding of the Sisters of Mercy, who taught me from Kindergarten through 12th grade. And this weekend was to be my 50th high school reunion, now postponed till next Fall along with so many other 2020 milestones. So I have “the sisters” on my mind.
Like so many religious communities of women, the Sisters of Mercy began in response to the needs of people around them. On September 24, 1827 Catherine McAuley opened Mercy House in Dublin to educate poor young girls and house homeless women and their children. Eight of the sisters came to San Francisco in 1854 when Archbishop Alemany pleaded for their help during the cholera epidemic. No fanfare, just tending to the needs of people who would otherwise be without shelter, medical care, or education. The ones who taught me were role models of women in leadership when there were few – women of intelligence, competence, passion and joy.
Yesterday I took part in the kickoff for the 2020 Virtual Nuns on the Bus tour. It was a beacon of light in this dark and troubled year. For those who don’t know, the first Nuns on the Bus tour was in 2012. That year two events converged to spark the idea: 1. The Vatican was investigating U.S. Sisters for perceived theological and cultural deviations from orthodoxy and 2. The economic divide in the country was becoming more and more painful, and the proposed federal budget planned major cuts to programs for individuals and families in poverty. So Network, a social justice organization founded by several religious congregations in 1971, decided to use the notoriety from #1 to call attention to #2. This year their theme is, Who We Elect Matters, and they are travelling virtually around the country to hold town hall meetings and interact with people whose voice might be missed. They radiate hope, energy, and love. You can check them out here: https://networklobby.org/bus2020/
This past Monday (September 21) was the U.N. International Day of Peace, established in 2002 as an annual day devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace, through observing 24 hours of non-violence and cease-fire. This year’s theme is Shaping Peace Together. The U.N. webpage for the day states:
This year, it has been clearer than ever that we are not each other’s enemies. Rather, our common enemy is a tireless virus that threatens our health, security and very way of life. COVID-19 has thrown our world into turmoil and forcibly reminded us that what happens in one part of the planet can impact people everywhere.
And it ends with a call: “Celebrate the day by spreading compassion, kindness and hope in the face of the pandemic. Stand together with the UN against attempts to use the virus to promote discrimination or hatred.”
In the midst of chaos and pain, perhaps we might honor all of these visionaries and servants of “the least among us” by being intentional about our own acts of compassion, kindness, hope – and love.
This photo was taken in a small family vineyard in Burgundy, France. It shows the grapes at the moment of véraison, meaning the onset of ripening. As the farmer/winemaker was excited to share, this is one of the most important moments in the yearly lifecycle of a grapevine. It is a turning point where the vine transitions from growing to ripening, when acid accumulation ceases and sugar increases as the grape uses acid reserves for energy.
At this moment the winegrower changes the way s/he cares for the vines: inspecting, pruning and testing with an eye to the harvest. The changes in this time critically influence the ultimate quality of the grapes, so for the winegrower it is both exciting and stressful to support the process, fully aware that nature can’t be controlled.
It occurs to me that this could be a helpful metaphor for navigating our spiritual lives at this moment in history, with medical, economic, political and cultural crises converging. I’m finding some inspiration for this in Ignatian Spirituality. In the Spiritual Exercises, we are continually invited to live in the moment because the present is the only moment of grace. Moments of grace are moments of experiencing the presence of God – which is mostly about us paying attention.
Winegrowers talk about veraison as a “moment”, and when I listened to the one in Burgundy I experienced it as a grace. He was totally present to his vines and the life within them, an attentiveness that would guide his work for the crucial ripening process.
Ignatius points us to a vision of God who is alive and active in the world and in each person’s life. Now I believe this, of course, but my responses to daily stresses might indicate otherwise. How often do I listen to the latest news and feel simply overwhelmed? Because I don’t trust others in their roles? Because I can’t fix it all for myself and those I love? Because it is too big, or maybe even too evil?
When I take time to remind myself who is actually in charge, who loved us all into being and who is with us always, I can walk more humbly with God in each moment of the day and be open to divine guidance for my attitude and actions. And I can more readily experience each moment as a moment of grace.
Fear not, I am with you;
be not dismayed; I am your God.
I will strengthen you, and help you,
and uphold you with my right hand of justice. (Isaiah 41:10)