First Sunday in Advent 2021

What does it take to believe in a promise? In a way, Advent is about believing in a promise, a promise that God has made to us. In today’s readings, Jeremiah speaks of this promise in terms of both security and justice. In his own day, Jeremiah was deeply affected by political events. The leadership of Israel had been sent into exile when the kingdom of Babylonia defeated the Assyrians. Jeremiah hearkens back to the “good old days” of a Davidic king and looks forward to new days when a “shoot” from the Davidic line will rule again. That was his hope for the fulfillment of God’s promise of justice. He believed in the promise and articulated it to God’s people.

Promises are an essential aspect of our everyday lives. We promise to love our spouses “for better and for worse” and to seek their good every day, even as we trust our spouse loves us and is doing the same for us. We promise to pray for loved ones and their intentions, and to be faithful in it. And we believe in the prayers of others who are near and dear to us in our hearts even if they are not always nearby.

We also make implicit promises of our fidelity, as when a mother or father has children and the children know they are always “held” in familial love and can return to it at any time. At our workplaces, we implicitly promise to treat others with respect. We can even see our larger work or church communities as a kind of extended family where there’s a mutual promise of care and serving of one another. Teaching students, for example, happens in the context of a university where we live in a community that promises to cultivate learning and where we all continue to be formed as well as informed.

The world, though, often poses obstacles to this rosy picture of community held together by belief in a promise. Consider the lack of mutual respect between people of different political perspectives when they lose faith that others are as well intentioned as they believe themselves to be. In churches, workplaces, and personal relationships, people can fail to love, and so trust becomes damaged. Even if we don’t live with the direct threat of a political Babylon, we can and should be aware of the genuine injustice that many people face. This Advent, we know the world still doesn’t fully live in a way that expresses care for the dignity of all people and all life. Just read the newspaper.

In that reality, what does believing in God’s promise to come and be with us mean? What does it look like to believe that God saves?

The other readings from today give us clues. The Psalm, Psalm 25, suggests it begins with an interior experience. Whatever Advent is for us, at its heart is an interior preparation. The Psalmist lifts up his soul to the Lord. What does he receive in return? An experience of kindness, guidance, constancy, and friendship. The Psalmist’s advice is simple and uncomplicated: first, we begin by lifting up not only our intentions, but also also our very selves to the Lord. We can begin Advent by offering up ourselves to God and trusting that God will come to fulfill us in the many and diverse ways that God can come to be present to us in prayer—whether in more active ways or in silence itself.

We also see on Jesus a model of what a life of kindness, faithfulness, truthfulness, and justice looks like. Jesus lived in a broken world, and in a world where people (like his own Jewish people) were oppressed. Rome asserted its power repeatedly over the peoples it governed and Herod was exceptionally brutal, killing off those whom he saw as threatening, those who were supposed to be under his care, and even his own children. The model Jesus gives us, one we will see more of in the readings from Luke in the weeks ahead, is one of kindness, courage, and faithful accompaniment of others.

The Gospel reading from Luke 21 counsels vigilance and wakefulness. Wakefulness requires our own activity: being attentive. What is called for in my world, here and now? How am I awake to what a world with hunger, poverty, sadness, or injustice needs right now? How am I open and attentive to how God wants to come to me right now? Do I trust in the goodness of Love and the faithfulness of Promise? If not, can I recollect past experiences of God’s love and kindness to increase my faith and hope?

Vigilance, though, means trusting that God will act, that we don’t do it all ourselves but know God will come in God’s own way to fulfill the promise. God acts in creative and surprising ways—-for example, sending a messenger to a poor, unknown young woman in Galilee. The biggest promise we have is God’s promise of love to us. That love never fades and never ceases to blossom. Let’s enter into Advent with a spirit of kindness, humility, and faithfulness to our own end of promises, trusting that God will act to fulfill our deepest needs.

An Ignatian Guide to Forgiveness

I’m delighted to announce that Loyola Press is today releasing my book, An Ignatian Guide to Forgiveness, available here:

https://store.loyolapress.com/the-ignatian-guide-to-forgiveness

It’s a book that explores forgiveness as a process—what do I do if I decide that I want to forgive, but struggle to forgive another person, or struggle to forgive myself, or to accept reconciliation? How can I better understand my own desires, and God’s desires for me and for the human community? Forgiveness is not only about letting go of anger and resentment, but also about celebration. In this book I offer some reflections on steps we can take to move closer to reconciliation, and ways that we can pray so that God can bring us to a place of healing and new life.

Where Have We Not Yet Surrendered Our Lives to God? – Ignatian Spirituality

In Lent, we consider where we have not yet surrendered our lives to God, in concrete and practical ways.
— A post I wrote for Loyola Press (Ignatian spirituality blog) in Lent 2015:

www.ignatianspirituality.com/20738/where-have-we-not-yet-surrendered-our-lives-to-god

Mary Oliver on praying

Praying

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”

–Mary Oliver, Thirst

Prayer, running, and slow transformation

“When I called, you answered me;
you built up strength within me.” (Psalm 138:3)

Last spring, I took up running as recreation, which was as much a surprise to me as to anyone else. Back in high school, I despised those days in phys ed class where we had to go run a mile by doing loops around the soccer field. Running in circles over and over again for fun? Nope, not for me. After the final run senior year, I was delighted I’d never have to do it again, though I continued to play plenty of other sports.

Then, last spring, while watching my son and his friends compete in track meets, I decided this potentially looked like a lot of fun, although I was out of shape from a long winter. Why not try?

The first month of training was awful, horrible. I couldn’t run any real distance and had to stop to walk every few minutes, panting and out of breath and very aware that of being in my 40s and not my 20s. I kept wanting to will my body to do things it could not yet do, as if I could suddenly get my heart and muscles into better condition just by trying harder. But the only way one’s body adapts to running is to keep on doing it, day after day, week after week, and month after month, until the body gets conditioned (e.g., not only muscle growth but things like growing new capillaries). I’m still not a particularly fast runner, and not even close to being a marathoner, but I regularly run a few times a week, around 3 miles, and I have recently been working up to 4 or 5 mile runs. In June I’ll run a 5K for the second time and meanwhile, wondered aloud to my husband whether a 10K would not be too crazy to try some day. I remarked to him what a funny thing it is that my identity has shifted from being someone who hated running to being a runner.

The line from Psalm 138 above reminded me that prayer is rather like the strength building that comes with running—the fruits of prayer come from its daily practice, day after day, week after week, month after month. Although we often can think about prayer as petitionary (requesting God to do something in particular for us), for me the heart of prayer is about building relationship with God. Like any relationship, love is built up through the many small actions between both persons that accumulate over much time and trust. As we stay in relationship with God, our own identities also shift and move in new directions.

As I’ve moved more into contemplative prayer and being with God in silence, I have discovered that those movements that slowly arise (with a lot less fanfare than in more active forms of prayer) are even more deeply transformative, if sometimes invisible to me. God’s action transforms us slowly and patiently, and it helps to have patience with ourselves as well. There is a mystery in God’s action in us in contemplation, and if we put in that everyday  time with God, we allow that slow transformation to unfold.

Prayer and Preparation to Love

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.
If there were not,
would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?
And if I go and prepare a place for you,
I will come back again and take you to myself,
so that where I am you also may be.” (Jn 14: 2-4)

Among all the passages in Jesus’s Last Supper Discourses, this is among my favorites. The idea of living “in God’s house” has much to offer as an image. Here Jesus addresses both the universality and the particularity of God’s love. There are many dwelling places in the Father’s home; for me, this emphasizes that God embraces the diversity of different personalities, cultures, attitudes, and characters. There is a place for everyone, as in the image Jesus offers of a tree that grows from a mustard seed and has many branches for the “birds of the air” to rest upon (Luke 13:19). At the same time, Jesus assures his friends that God prepares a place for “you,” for these particular friends of his. God’s love is both universal and particular. We see those two dimensions of love reflected in our everyday human loves, too: we’re both called to love other people agapically, to love everyone simply because we are all part of the same human family and all loved by God, and we are called to love some people in our lives in a more particular way: family, friends, mentors, neighbors, those whom God has placed on our path in some special way. When we love other people, we are also loving the Lord and when we love the Lord we cannot help but love others whom He loves.

I also like the language of “preparation” here. Teresa of Avila spoke about a mansion of many houses in her work on prayer. Prayer is both an act of loving and a preparation for loving. We pray to God because we love God. We pray for others because we love them in God. But we also pray to address those incomplete, not yet formed, or confused places in our lives and our selves that need healing, formation, or re-structuring. For example, we pray in the Lord’s prayer to be fed, and to know and to offer forgiveness–but these are things that take time in prayer and arise like the grace of a wind on a hot summer’s day, after time.

Prayer is how God prepares us to love, and already an act of love. When we pray, we are brought closer to being where Jesus is, through Jesus showing us the way.

Meister Eckhart and the pursuit of unknowing knowing

“Now you may say, ‘What is it that God does without images in the ground and essence?’ That I am incapable of knowing, for my soul powers can receive only in images; they have to recognize and lay hold of each thing in its appropriate image: they cannot recognized a bird in the image of a man. Now since all images enter from without, this is concealed from my soul, which his most salutary for her. Not knowing makes her wonder and leads her to eager pursuit, for she knows clearly that it is but knows not how or what it is. No sooner does a man know the reason of a thing than immediately he tires of it and goes casting about for something new. Always clamoring to know, he is every inconstant. The soul is constant only to this unknowing knowing which keeps her pursuing.”

–Meister Eckart, From whom God Hid Nothing (Shambhala, 1996), 54.

Rejoice!

Today is Gaudete Sunday, when we remember where Advent is headed: toward the fullness of joy in Christ. Although we are not yet at Christmas, we pause to rejoice even today? Why?

One reason is that we already have a foretaste of joy in God even here and now, in this world. Eternity is not something that we have to wait for, at the end of life, although I do believe that when we die, we pass into God’s eternal love. We can taste and see some of that joy on earth.

Where do we rejoice? Always our joy is in God. The first reading reminds us how connected, though, that joy in God is found in relationship with others. Before Isaiah says, “I rejoice heartily in the Lord,” he says, the Spirit of God has anointed him to go to the poor, the imprisoned, and the brokenhearted (Isaiah 61:1-2a). Not all of Isaiah 61 is read at Mass, but the reading goes on after these first lines to remind us that God comes to rebuild, not to destroy; to bring joy where there is grief; and to replace shame with a double sized inheritance of belonging (Isaiah 61:4-7).

How do we get to joy? How do we get to a place beyond death, destruction, grief, or shame? Through letting God’s spirit work in and through what we have to offer to others–especially through our relationships with those who are poor or in need of healing–because then we also find joy and healing in what is poor and broken in ourselves.

The reading from Paul in Thessalonians gives concrete advice about how to rejoice: to pray ceaselessly, wherever and in whatever circumstances we are. That means not simply praying often in private or communal prayer, but to make all that we do an act or a sacrifice of prayer to God. Paul also tells us to listen to challenges and to prophetic challenges especially, but without fear, because it’s when we let God break in through our defenses and our defensiveness that the Spirit enters in.  And we find joy when we are people of gratitude, focused on remembering God’s constant giving of God’s self to us.

Joy is the fruit of living a Christian life. We don’t choose joy, but joy comes to us. How do we prepare for joy?

Practice gratitude.

Be prayerful.

Let God break through our defenses, by listening to the prophets of today.

Fear not.

Be with others, especially those who are poor, and be comfortable being with what is poor in ourselves.

Rejoice!