This image was taken during the war in 1992 in Sarajevo in the partially destroyed National Library. The cello player is local musician Vedran Smailović, who often came to play for free at different funerals during the siege despite the fact that funerals were often targetted by Serb forces. (Mikhail Evstafiev)
In 1991 a terrible war broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The stories of strife and the images that came to us in the nightly news and news magazines captured my imagination and tore at my heart.
Of the many troubling images, one stands out to me still. It was of a man, a musician, a cellist, who in his own outrage and grief, began playing his music in the streets and destruction of Sarajevo.
Please forgive me for even trying to speak of this time, because I do not understand the history of the troubles that led to the terrible war in Bosnia, Croatia, and Herzegovina in the 1990s. I tried to understand and the most I can really grasp is that there were boundary issues, and differences between the cultures that had previously lived together peacefully. The atrocities that followed were something I found horrific, and incomprehensible. Neighbors against neighbors in some instances. And unnecessary cruelty. It left a profound impression on me for many reasons. The same is true for other areas of the war torn world. I will never understand man's inhumanity to man. Greed and self interest do not seem enough to account for the hatred and meanness that wars bring about. However, the image below was something I could understand. I have lost loved ones. I understand grief and loss. Somehow the gesture of playing cello, doing the small thing that one can, to retain a sense of humanity, has left an indelible impression on me of the largeness of the human spirit.
The image below is not mine. It was published in Time Magazine around 1991. I ripped the picture from my copy of Time Magazine back then, and kept it to remind me to pray for those who are living surrounded by grief, and to remind me that there is value in doing whatever we can to elevate the human condition. I have made a significant effort to locate the original and to give credit to the photographer. My best guess is that it was taken by Roger M. Richards.
The corn was harvested in early December in 2009. This year it was soybeans in the same field. The soybeans were harvested in late October. We don't farm ourselves, but living here closer to the seasons makes me appreciate the effort that is spent on cultivating. We planted a very modest garden of our own this year. When the cucumbers emerged from the vine, it was like a small miracle had taken place. Food came from the earth!
It is funny to me that in only one or two generations we have nearly forgotten what it is to have a vegetable garden and to grow our own food. We are so dependent on others for our basics, that I almost forgot that I can plant and grow myself. It is a great thing to be able to depend on others, for it teaches us to group together. But it seems good to re-learn some basic skills and perhaps some new tricks to make the job easier. I'll be planting more vegetables next year and remembering my grandparents and their own common sense about the garden.
At Mass this past Sunday we heard someone share about a good deed done for some children who came from "broken homes". While the remainder of the message about sharing and doing good to others without expecting to receive thanks in return may have had its merits, I was personally distracted by the expression "broken home". I leaned over to my beautiful grown daughter and whispered, "That's probably not a good term to use in church." She replied, "But what other term is there?" I said, "By his reckoning, you are from a broken home." Hmm. I'm not sure she had thought of it that way. I suggested, "Divorced, impoverished, underprivileged?" How about just describing the particular needs of the ones being helped? To me, the term was the equivalent of the 1950s term "crippled". Let's not condemn people to being broken forever.
While it's true, my beautiful children had the misfortune to be born to a father and mother who became divorced, I hardly thought of our family as broken. But it seems many others did, and perhaps still do. I will likely go to my grave defending the choices I've made as a well intentioned but imperfect mother. It's a difficult job and it seems despite my resolve, I was less than terrific. But it was not made easier by those who saw us as broken. We had different challenges, to be sure. But I never thought of my children as from a broken home. Their dad and I still loved them, still cared for them. My children still had many benefits, including a safe environment to live, opportunities for education, and extended family that cared about them. We celebrated birthdays and holidays, sang and read books in our home. There was heat in the winter and chances to cool off in the summer. We had winter coats and mittens and beds to sleep in. There were friends and events we shared with others. There was laughter and there were tears. There were vacations. There was love in our home.
So what do we mean when we say a home is broken?
Sometimes divorce is not the breaking of something. Sometimes it is the fixing of something. I would never call it an easy fix. Never, ever. But please, isn't there another term you could use that wouldn't label so many people as broken? Some term that wouldn't sting us again and again. Really.
We are in the midst of the three days of celebration and reflection leading up to Easter Sunday. They are my favorite time year, and the most significant, for me, in the Christian calendar. They capture the heart of Christ's message of humility and obedience, which Jesus demonstrated perfectly. In how many other religious, political, or other traditions does the leader, (in this case, the Son of God) take on the role and duties of the servant? Jesus, whose entire mission was to reveal more of the Father to us, takes on the guilt of all of us, and becomes the perfect sacrifice. His sacrifice replaced the annual Jewish sacrifices at Passover, where the unblemished yearling lamb or goat was offered for the sins of the household. That first Passover was a bloody affair. All that killing and blood... it's disturbing to me to read the account and imagine the scene. Jesus fulfilled, completed that offering, and became the perpetual sacrifice, the perfect, unblemished offering. Crude and bloody, barbaric really, his crucifixion, his death, was the price of our freedom.
It wasn't easy for Him to bear it, but it was the Father's will.
"In the days when Christ was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him." Heb 5:7-9
He sets the example for us when it comes to obedience. We are to obey as He obeyed, so that the Father's will be done.
The Servant's Song:
Brother let me be your servant Let me be as Christ to you Pray that I might have the grace to Let you be my servant, too.
We are pilgrims on a journey We are travelers on the road We are here to help each other Walk the mile and bear the load.
I will hold the Christ light for you In the night-time of your fear I will hold my hand out to you Speak the peace you long to hear.
I will weep when you are weeping When you laugh I'll laugh with you I will share your joy and sorrow Till we see this journey through.
When we sing to God in heaven We shall find such harmony Borne of all we've known together Of Christ's love and agony.
Brother let me be your servant Let me be as Christ to you Pray that I might have the grace to Let you be my servant, too.
There are a variety of versions of this hymn on YouTube. I prefer a quieter version but couldn't find it. This one is nice.
The reverence that Catholics show to Saints is often misunderstood. The true role of the Saints in the Church is to inspire us to love and serve God. They show, by their good example, how to follow Jesus more closely. While all Christians are saints, all of us trying to follow God in our personal journeys, some do so in an exemplary way. It seems simple to me to recognize that if we honor those who excel in other areas, honoring those who live an exceptional Christian life is no different. We accept role models for sports, business, authors, etc. We give awards and accolades for many accomplishments. In this same, but perhaps more significant spirit, the Catholic Church honors those who exemplify the Christian life. Some move us more than others. The Saints come in every shape and color and can teach us. As a Catholic Christian, my own fondness for some Saints more than others is personal. The Saints have personalities unique to them and are no different than any of us, except in the firmness of their resolve to do good. I love them for their flaws and their successes because their humanity both comforts and inspires me.
My father's family was Irish. His grandfather immigrated to the United States from County Mayo in 1874 with his wife, and they raised a large family which included my own grandfather and many great aunts and uncles. My father had a strong connection with his Irish roots, and this was passed on to us. Included in this was an appreciation for St. Patrick. From the time I was in Jr. High School, I recall a small statue of St. Patrick in our living room where it was an important reminder of the Saint's positive influence on the Irish people.
I have this same statue now in our home, along with a small reproduction of an icon bearing the image of St. Patrick. I have tried to impress upon my children the value of our Irish roots.
For a brief history of St. Patrick himself, you can click on the image above or below.
For whatever it is worth, I personally have felt a closeness with the rural countryside of Ireland and have a temperament that can be described as Irish... friendly and fun loving while introverted and melancholy at the same time.
The prayer of St. Patrick, including "The Deer Cry" cited below, is a powerful acclamation of our intention to follow God each day, and to do so, strengthened by Him. So for the feast of St. Patrick, I share this prayer today:
"I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, through belief in the Threeness, through confession of the Oneness of the Creator of creation.
I arise today through the strength of Christ with his Baptism, through the strength of His Crucifixion with His Burial through the strength of His Resurrection with His Ascension, through the strength of His descent for the Judgment of Doom.
I arise today through the strength of the love of Cherubim in obedience of Angels, in the service of the Archangels, in hope of resurrection to meet with reward, in prayers of Patriarchs, in predictions of Prophets, in preachings of Apostles, in faiths of Confessors, in innocence of Holy Virgins, in deeds of righteous men.
I arise today, through the strength of Heaven; light of Sun, brilliance of Moon, splendor of Fire, speed of Lightning, swiftness of Wind, depth of Sea, stability of Earth, firmness of Rock.
I arise today, through God's strength to pilot me: God's might to uphold me, God's wisdom to guide me, God's eye to look before me, God's ear to hear me, God's word to speak for me, God's hand to guard me, God's way to lie before me, God's shield to protect me, God's host to secure me: against snares of devils, against temptations of vices, against inclinations of nature, against everyone who shall wish me ill, afar and anear, alone and in a crowd.
I summon today all these powers between me (and these evils): against every cruel and merciless power that may oppose my body and my soul, against incantations of false prophets, against black laws of heathenry, against false laws of heretics, against craft of idolatry, against spells of witches, smiths and wizards, against every knowledge that endangers man's body and soul. Christ to protect me today against poisoning, against burning, against drowning, against wounding, so that there may come abundance in reward.
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ in breadth, Christ in length, Christ in height, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.
I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, through belief in the Threeness, through confession of the Oneness of the Creator of creation. Salvation is of the Lord. Salvation is of the Lord. Salvation is of Christ. May Thy Salvation, O Lord, be ever with us. Amen."
I am not the best Christian. I am not the best Catholic. I am not the best wife. I am not the wisest parent. I am not the best mother. I am not the smartest student. I am not the coolest parent. I am not the best photographer. I am not the most insightful blogger. I am not the best listener. I am not the most eloquent speaker. I am not the best writer. I am not the best gardener. I am not the best daughter. I am not the best sister. I am not the most patient person. I am not the most learned theologian. I am not the best intercessor. I am not the kindest. I am not the most helpful. I am not the one who knows the most about anything. I am not the one with all the answers. I am not the most forgiving. I am not the best dressed. I am not the most beautiful. I am not the youngest. I am not the best housekeeper. I am not the neatest person. I am not the one with the most friends. I am not the one with the most perfect children. I am not the one with the most grandchildren. I am not the best daughter-in-law. I am not the best aunt. I am not the best sister-in-law. I am not the best niece. I am not the best employee. I am not the one with the most awards. I am not the best athlete. I am not the best singer. I am not the best artist. I am not the most creative. I am not the best dog trainer. I am not the best neighbor. I am not the best cook. I am not the most informed. I am not the most politically involved. I am not the best read. I am not the most tidy. I am not the most reliable. I am not the most consistent. I am not the most energetic. I am not the most thorough. There are so very very many things that I am not... I am not the one sitting at His right hand.
I am aware of my mistakes, aware of my limitations, aware of the ways I have let others down.
I often hear my accuser remind me of all the ways that I am not worthy. I often hear my accuser's voice. My accuser often tells the truth. My accuser is often right about my failings. My accuser does not tell the whole truth, though. And the part he does not tell is the part I need most to hear.
I know: I am a sinner. I am very much in need of forgiveness. I am very much in need of a Savior. I am very much in need of the Eucharist.
This morning at Mass, once more, I was confronted with the truth. Jesus comes to me not because of myself but in spite of myself. He comes to me out of love. He comes to me always because He is merciful. I am very much forgiven. Without Him, I am nothing. I am a wilted flower. Nothing to behold. Nothing to recommend itself.
St. Theresa of Lisieux reminded us, "The guest of our soul knows our misery; He comes to find an empty tent within us - that is all He asks."
Unmerited Mercy. Grace. That is what I receive from Jesus. That is His gift to me.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent today, Feb 17, 2010.
This is a flower pic, taken a couple years ago, which I've converted to this black and white image. Just as I have stripped away the color from this image, during this season of Lent, we now strip away ourselves to find more of the genuine, and less of the facades. We quiet those external noises that drown out the voice of our Creator. We gladly make sacrifices because we find our truer selves in so doing. And we turn our hearts toward God and others. This is the way we were meant to be. This is how we were designed.
We are not perfect, but there is beauty in our imperfection. We are not whole, but He can make up what is lacking.
Like the tulip above, we are open, and ready.
"Here I am, Lord. Your servant is listening."
As I woke today, I thought of St. Paul. He had many reasons to feel secure in his relationship with God. Born a Jew, circumcised on the eighth day, years of zealous (overzealous?) service within his tradition... But his worldly standing did not grant him access to the One he desired. All that effort to be good and holy... fell short. Paul tells us that knowing Jesus was worth more than all of his public position and standing. Paul's relationship with Jesus was the thing he valued most. St. Paul is a credible witness. Knowing all that he knows, he tells the Philippians (3:8-10), "I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ...being found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ...that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible, I may attain the resurrection form the dead."
We fast during Lent because it gives us great joy to be joined with Jesus in his own selflessness. While it may cause us temporary pain or difficulty, our eyes are looking toward the prize, the goal. That is, we are looking toward Jesus, himself. Our faith sustains us when He seems quiet. This is why, as Catholics, we are pleased to embrace small (or great) sufferings for we know that they are good teachers. We are not afraid of hardship. Our sacrifices teach us to be patient, and to wait in faith.
One more thing about St. Paul is that he leaves the outcome of his soul with Jesus. "...that if possible, I may attain the resurrection from the dead." He doesn't boast that it is his. If he boasts at all, he boasts only in his trust, in his relationship, in his faith in Jesus.
So many times it is difficult to trust. When He seems quiet, or we feel distant. That is when we must call on the virtue of patience, and rely on His timing. God is not a genie to be called forth from some shiny lamp. He is God. We must be his patient servants.
God bless any of you who stop to read these words. Those of you who observe Lent and those of you who do not. We are all His creatures.
I am giving some thought today to the weeks just ahead as many of us begin the period of Lent. Yesterday, I mentioned in my blog that if we are not thoughtful, we can easily drift from our chosen path and end up where we never intended to go. The antidote to this can be found, in part, in the observation of Lent.
Lent, the forty days prior to the Christian celebration of Easter, begins tomorrow. In many traditions, Lent is observed as a time to reflect on our need for salvation, our need for God, and to examine our lives in the context of virtue. Lent provides a time for self-reflection and repentance. As part of this "life review", it is customary to make small sacrifices, to demonstrate that we are serious about our desire to live more closely with God. Such acts, often of self-denial, can serve a dual purpose, for as we deny ourselves earthly comforts, we shut out the noise of the world. That "noise" often comes from within, as our inner selves make demands all day long: "Feed me!" or "Don't make me work so hard!" As we quiet those inner demands, we gain something scripture refers to as "self-mastery", which is a freedom that is often overlooked and undervalued by our Western culture. It is the freedom to say "no" to that often irrational and demanding voice that is inside us. Another part of this season of Lent includes reaching out, giving alms, and remembering others. Here we put into action our insights that it is better to give than to receive, better to think of others before thinking of ourselves.
The Christian life should be modeled after Jesus, himself. Therefore, we must concern ourselves to build a closer and stronger relationship with the Father, and also to love and help those He created.
This year, I think I will be considering Christian virtues.
What are virtues? In general, virtues involve a habitual and firm disposition to do good. They involve our intellect, and govern our actions, giving order to our passions and desires, and are informed by reason and faith. Virtues can be grouped around the 4 (four) cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. The Catholic catechism tells us that there are 3 (three) theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity (love). These undergird and give direction to all other virtues.
The term human virtues, is used to describe qualities such as compassion, responsibility, a sense of duty, self-discipline, and restraint, honesty, loyalty, friendship, courage, and persistence, and others. These related to those Cardinal Virtues but they are supported by, or even driven by, the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.
The theological virtues are acquired through baptism and granted to us by God's unmerited grace. But the cardinal virtues we acquire by doing good. We learn them through observing them in others, and repeating them in our own behavior. We grow in virtue by frequent repetition of virtuous acts. For example, each time we choose to tell the truth, rather than a lie, we grow in honesty. Each time we ignore our fears, we grow in courage.
There are many lists of virtues. Generosity, poverty of spirit (humility), purity of heart,... I will have much to think about!
The flower above is a yellow salsify. It grows wild in the midwest where I live. I have converted it to black and white. The stark tones seem appropriate for the journey ahead.
May He draw us always closer to His heart, and teach us to love as He does.
"Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and seen in me, do, and the God of peace will be with you." Philippians 4:8-9
When I was in high school and college I spent a good deal of time reading and praying about lessons from the Old and New Testaments. St. Paul's exhortation to the Philippians, noted above, has always held deep meaning for me. It teaches the way to a) maintain a positive attitude, b) is excellent advice for warding off depression, and c) is a wonderful first step for problem solving when one is confronted with problems.
This has all come to mind again recently as I have watched television take on darker and darker themes. There seems to be a marked increase in shows that deal with a non-Christian view of spirituality-- shows that elevate magic, and the afterlife or vampires, which, of course are very popular these days. There are increasingly gruesome crime scenes and an exploration into the psyche of those who torture or perform unthinkable acts on others. On a certain level it is fascinating. I admit that I am drawn to many of the shows that deal with crime. On the simplest level, they are about good and evil. Mixed in to even the best shows, however, are the little jabs against my beliefs.
There is very little to watch that inspires one to be a better person, but there is plenty to normalize our baser instincts. There are few times when Catholic virtues are supported, and many more times when their ideal is actually mocked. It's funny, too, because really, the argument against Catholic ideals doesn't have much to support it. Mocking virtue and idealizing vice hardly holds up to real scrutiny. But isn't that the idea? In a way, aren't we just being numbed or lulled into a torpor so we won't scrutinize. Taking the path of least resistance, we can drift further from our truest selves, further from our real capacities. It's like Western culture has become so adolescent that we stand as a group and laugh at things we don't even understand, but act in front of one another as though we have superiority. Western culture thinks it is pretty "cool".
We know better. What good parent doesn't hold up some sort of ideal for their children? Who wouldn't encourage their child to improve their soccer or reading skills, or to practice their violin? We know it takes effort to meet our goals. So maybe the problem is that we have lost sight of our spiritual and moral goals. Maybe the problem is that we have replaced the real and authentic, with something that is not real but counterfeit.
There is a story, and I don't know the source or I would give it. But it is the story of someone who works in the banking industry. He or she is an expert at identifying counterfeit bills. This individual was asked one time about how he got so good at identifying counterfeit bills, and if he didn't have to see a lot of counterfeit money as part of his education. His reply was that he didn't need to study the counterfeits. He studied the genuine bill. That is all he did. If you study and know the genuine, you can spot a counterfeit.
So this is the point I am making. If we submerge ourselves in what is base, we are likely to lose sight of the virtues and our moral compass may drift, over time, leading us down a path that we never really intended to travel. This doesn't happen because we are bad, but because we are human. We are easily influenced by what we hear and see, and if we are not paying attention, we may forget ourselves.
So St. Paul's words speak to me. And that is why I post this photo of the gladiolus. It is not the best picture of a flower that you will ever see. But it is good enough. And I hope it points you to consider something good, and true and beautiful.
As we approach Lent this coming Wednesday, may we all turn our hearts back to the One who made them. May we take each other's hands to guide us all back to the path if we have strayed. Our happiness truly comes from Him.
Here he is again. My good dog. This was taken last June. Now, in the middle of the cold, grey days of January, we are dreaming of the warm weather that is soon to return. Just on the verge of February, the longest month in Michigan by my reckoning, the thought of summer days and warm, out door wanderings, is a pleasant thought indeed.
I'm a wife, a mother of grown children, and work full time as a nurse practitioner with cancer patients. My work is gratifying often, and difficult and sad sometimes, too.
I'm average and extraordinary, just as you are. I've experienced profound failures, significant disappointments, had a few successes, and been the recipient of a lot of mercy. I try to keep perspective on what's important in life, and not get too upset about the rest.
My Catholic faith is important to me, and while I'm no theologian, it's my intention that my faith inform my outlook and values, and inspire personal virtue. I love that God desires to reveal himself to us. I love the small hints, the little bread crumbs, the multiple clues, and the pieces of the puzzle that dot the created world and point to the hand of the Creator. I love that He uses beauty, art, science, all his creatures and the invisible realm of our heart and emotions to communicate His goodness to us. And I love that the fullness of his love can be seen in the sacrifice of his son, Jesus, which makes me free.