The Sacred Heart of Jesus

I haven’t blogged in a while. It’s not that I don’t have things to say that I hope others will read, it’s just that my bank of time seems to be overdrawn these days. Life interrupts, eh? I made a tough decision earlier this year between the two retreats I speak of in this blog. The decision was, for now, to withdraw from my master’s program in ministry. I hope to resume one year from now, but we will see what life throws at me in the interim…travel to Syria in February, to Lebanon in August, Jana’s medical needs, family. You all have a similar list; the blanks may be filled in differently, but that is life.

Over the last three summers plus two weeks online in the fall I have had what has been the most fulfilling and filling class: The History of Christian Spirituality, taught by Dr. Wendy M. Wright. You should look her up and buy her books! You will be most blessed. From the beginning, people who have been called to follow the way of Jesus have expressed their understanding of him through traditions of spirituality. Just how has that wild goose of a Holy Spirit manifested to them how to experience and share the love of God in Christ…that is spirituality, at least as I understand it. The trajectory from the beginning has been, as St. Isaac the Syrian says, love. That is what I have learned from the martyrs and monks, the mendicants and mystics, and finally in part three, the early modern disciples who carried on in reformation times.

Throughout this course of study I have written two previous papers. The readings I did, the voices I heard, all had prominent connections for me in this age with those I have journeyed with in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Throughout my class discussions and in those papers I have used example after example to illustrate how these streams of spirituality still flow in God’s saints walking the earth today. This third class was different, and even more personal as I connected these stories with my life with my sister Jana.

Here then is my final paper. I write it in honor of and in gratitude to Jana whose life has modeled mercy, charity, love, light, faith and hope for me. Footnotes, bibliography and all, I hope you find a blessing in it.

“Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal…envisioned a transformed world of conjoined human and divine hearts. They taught that through the practice of the little virtues, spiritual friendship, prayer and service to one another, the hearts of each ‘Theotimus’ or ‘Philothia’ (God lovers) can be transformed and the gentle heart of Jesus live anew.”[1]

I begin my reflection on the back page of one of our texts that came with me to our cohort’s silent retreat following our day of class on June 16, 2018. I was struck by a group of people I had never heard of, and this quote drew me in. As I walked the labyrinth at Griswold, I had a sense that some how God’s heart was in the middle of its twists and turns, and the only way for me to find God’s heart was to keep walking until I got to the center. It was so frustrating! I would get so close and then a twist would take me all the way to the outer ring, as far from the center as I could be. “Oh Lord,” I prayed as continued walking, “why is my pitiful human heart so far from yours? Why can’t you just grab mine right now and fuse it to yours?” Upon reaching the middle and calming down, I was struck by the realization that God had been with me the whole time. His heart was not in the middle of the labyrinth, but had been guiding me the whole way, enabling me to joyfully walk back out.

Labyrinth, Creighton Retreat Center, Griswold, Iowa, June, 2018.

There is much to reflect on in this final section of the history of Christian spirituality, and I cannot do any of it justice, so I will restrict my reflection to what has captured my attention in the weeks of reading and the weeks since where life has intersected with our assignments.

The fifteenth century was a time of reformation, birthing protestant churches and reforms in the Catholic church.[2] What does it mean to be a Christian? How is the spirit of God made manifest in those who profess Jesus Christ? For people like Martin Luther and John Calvin it was about finding God’s authority in scripture, and understanding that our only hope of being restored to God’s image was through grace freely offered.[3] Sometimes I struggle with Luther and his “solas,” especially, sola scriptura (I find so much to augment scripture in tradition and reason!), but there is this: “For Luther, spirituality consists in a heartfelt trust in Christ’s work ‘for me’ and in generous service to the neighbor.”[4] If I could put this back into a language of hearts being joined, God’s grace informs my heart to see his heart in those around me. For me this is the essence of Matthew 25: “…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink…‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (vs. 35-40)

I know there is much more to reflect on the protestant traditions – I could do a whole reflection just on the beautiful poetry and hymns and the piety they portray – but what really moved me in this class were the Catholic traditions, beginning with the Carmelites. The vision statement of my church is to be on the journey with the living Christ, and that is the language that struck me in the story of the Carmelites. Their journey is modeled on Elijah, “a man on a journey, always on the way from ‘here’ to ‘there’ in response to God’s call…”[5] Scripture tells us that God calls Elijah to the Wadi Cherith, to drink from the stream. (I Kings 17:2-7) Cherith means love: God quenches our thirst with his love. This love transforms us as we are drenched in the presence of God.

Out of this tradition of the Carmelites come people like Teresa of Avila. A reformer of her order, she also spoke of a journey and left writings (such as The Way of Perfection,) behind to help us take that inner journey with God. “For Teresa the inner journey is one where the love and mercy of God transform her. However, she does this while being very conscious that the way forward is to allow her humanity to be transformed and linked to the humanity of Christ.”[6] “Friendship with God and entry into the life of the Trinity is the end of the journey…Again it is the humanity of Christ as found in the Gospels that is the way for Teresa. Christ is the teacher and the ‘Our Father’ is the great prayer that he gives us.”[7] As I shared in one of my discussion posts, that prayer has been often prayed and contemplated in my sixty years of life. To share it with Teresa as a guidepost on the journey is a gift.

Technology of the time – the printing press! – was able to put the words of the scriptures in many more hands. For Teresa of Avila, it was the great teachings of Jesus from which the Our Father poured forth, the sermon on the mount. For Francis de Sales, the great defining scripture of his spirituality can be found a bit later in the book of Matthew: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (11:28) “Jesus reveals the heart of God.”[8] And so “Hearts that are claimed by the gentle Heart of Jesus inspire and draw other hearts to them, beating and breathing with the force of love.”[9] The community of women he built with Jane de Chantal, the Visitation of Holy Mary, modeled for non-ordained people like me what the picture of Christian community looks like. For someone who lives with and cares for a handicapped sister, knowing that Jane, a widow with children, could have a life of ministry in her every day life gave me pause to reflect on what Jana and I have together in our own little community. “What her director [Francis de Sales] was teaching her was to ‘Live Jesus!’, to make of her heart a vessel through which the divine life could enter the world.”[10]

First communion scapular from 1966.

This beautiful Salesian spirituality of the heart has moved me greatly. I left the Catholic church a long time ago, but have often thought on the Sacred Heart of Jesus. As I was reading about Margaret Mary Alacoque and her vision, which inspired this devotion, I went to my jewelry box where an old and tattered scapular has remained with me since my first communion in second grade. There were the depictions of the two sacred hearts, one of Jesus and the other of Mary. This tradition had been entwined with my life for a long time, but now there were words and people who could give voice to what it means to me:

This divine Heart is an inexhaustible fountain from which three streams are continually flowing. The first is the stream of mercy, which flows down upon sinners and brings the spirit of sorrow and repentance. The second is the stream of charity which brings relief to all those who are suffering under some need, and especially those who are striving for perfection…The third is the stream of love and light for perfect friends whom He wills to unite with Himself.”[11]

Finally, I want to touch on Vincent de Paul. The story we heard of Vincent de Paul in the Creighton podcast brought me back again to the Matthew 25 story I mentioned earlier. As I noted while listening, “Assigned to a rural parish, he fell in love with the poor and his ministry to them.”[12] He “fell in love” with the poor and experienced the “privileged presence of grace, the poor as masters and teachers…he turned the medal over and saw the face of Jesus.”[13] This to me is a continuation of that idea of joining the human and divine hearts, and this is an expression of grace that moves me to tears. I believe that to see the face of God in those around us is exactly what God calls us to. This is the heart of the gospel: to love God and to love our neighbor as ourself. We cannot love God without loving neighbor, and we cannot love neighbor unless we see God on the other side of that medal!

This has been a rich and deep study of many traditions, and it happened too quickly. As the expression goes, it was like drinking from a firehose! But as I stated at the beginning of my reflection, life in the present day intersected with my reading and my pondering. One week after I began with a whole day of class followed by a silent retreat where I read the back cover of Heart to Heart, I found myself at yet another silent retreat. This one was directed by two women of my own church and was held at the Benedictine Center in Schuyler, Nebraska. I went with my afore-mentioned sister Jana. She is handicapped from a car/train collision in 1983, which occurred on her way home from a Bible study. Just as at Griswold, there is a labyrinth in Schuyler. I really wanted Jana to experience the journey of the walk in, and the inner journey that is part of it. Unfortunately, Jana cannot walk rough ground by herself, and the wheelchair we used for longer distances was no help either. And so we parked it, and made our way slowly through the deep grass until we arrived.

Holding up together, St. Benedict Center, Schuyler, Nebraska, June, 2018.

As I held on to her to stabilize her, we took very slow steps. Violating the silence of the retreat, I whispered to her what I had discovered the prior weekend at Griswold: “Jana, look…there is the center, where we find God’s heart. It is so far away and yet so close. Oh my! We have to go by it again! When will we get there and throw ourselves into his loving embrace?”

 

In the middle of the Labyrinth, St. Benedict Center, Schuyler, Nebr., June, 2018.

It took an entire hour to get to the middle. Slow step. Foot drag. Slow step. Foot drag. But we made it and I shared my revelation with her. “God was WITH us the whole time! He is not a place we have to find! He finds us and walks WITH us!”

Being proud of my revelation from the week before, I was convicted once again that not only my Christology, but the way I experience God was still being refined. My revelation was that not only was Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us, is always there, but that indeed for me personally he has been speaking to me, caring for me, loving me up close through the broken body of my sister for the past thirty-five years. I may have been holding her up through the labyrinth, but she has held me up through life, inviting me back into the community of the church. When I flip the medal of Jana’s face over, there is Jesus. When my body aches from holding her up, that is the privileged presence of grace. When we have walked the halls of Congress advocating for the poor around the world with Bread For the World, we are living Jesus. On that dark night in 1983 when she was struck, “thy will be done” became more than just a line in the Our Father to be repeated unthinkingly every night. Thy will be done is what you pray as you journey with the living Christ on a pilgrimage to join your heart with his in the dance that partners humanity and divinity. Through thirty-five years of sharing her heart with me in words and deeds, three streams of mercy, charity, love and light have flowed from her like living streams.

Let me finish this reflection with this quote which illustrates what I have just tried to say about my life with and for my sister Jana. In speaking of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth:

And as the mark of divine visitation is transformation, in the course of this most ordinary event of a cousins’ reunion, the two women are transformed. They are transformed as the world is transformed by the action of God’s love. In their heart to heart meeting these women are the images of both the individual and communal life inspired by the Spirit of love…The kingdom of God, the reign of divine love, is thus in Salesian spirituality aptly named as a visitation – a union of divine and human love, a love most vividly realized on earth as spiritual friendship.[14]

Some people might have looked at us that day at the labyrinth and thought, “Isn’t that nice…one woman holding up another so she can walk the labyrinth?” What they did not comprehend was that Jana was holding me up through this journey. Human love and divine love, joined in a spiritual friendship. And that has made all the difference for us both.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

McGreal, Wilfrid. At the Fountain of Elijah: The Carmelite Tradition. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999.

Raitt, Jill. “European Reformations of Christian Spirituality.” In The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality, edited by Arthur Holder, 122-138. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

Wright, Wendy M. Heart Speaks to Heart: The Salesian Tradition. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004.

Wright, Wendy M. MAM769C Lecture notes, June 16, 2018.

Wright, Wendy M. “St. Vincent De Paul.” Catholic Comments Podcast, 22 Sept. 2014, cucatholicctr.org/2014/09/st-vincent-de-paul/.

[1] Wendy M. Wright, Heart Speaks to Heart: The Salesian Tradition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004), Back cover.

[2] MAM769C lecture notes, June 16, 2018.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jill Raitt. “European Reformations of Christian Spirituality.” In The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality, edited by Arthur Holder, 122-138. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, 124,

[5] Wilfrid McGreal, At the Fountain of Elijah: The Carmelite Tradition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999), 38.

[6] Ibid, 56.

[7] Ibid, 58.

[8] Lecture notes, June 16, 2018.

[9] Ibid, Wright, 34.

[10] Ibid, 46.

[11] Ibid, 102.

[12] Wendy M. Wright. “St. Vincent De Paul.” Catholic Comments Podcast, 22 Sept. 2014, cucatholicctr.org/2014/09/st-vincent-de-paul/.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, Wright, 53.

Why do I go?

Dear Tom,

You asked me twice why I go to Lebanon and Syria and Iraq, and in my own ineloquent way I tried to answer. In flying off to those lands today I took a book from my shelf of unread books to accompany me on this journey. Mystics was written by Fr. William Harmless, S.J., a former theology professor at Creighton, now deceased. First of all his name is a reminder to do just that: harm less. How could I not take it to a war zone?

Studying the mystics is part of my master of arts in ministry program at Creighton and I spent part of the summer and fall in the readings of Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, Alice of Foligno and others including men. But I didn’t quite grasp the meaning of mysticism in the sense of Christianity until I weirdly grabbed this book at four this morning on my way out the door.

A 15th century theologian named Jean Gerson offered a definition that was very helpful to me as a strong feeler on the thinking-feeling spectrum of the Myers Briggs assessment. “Where scholastic theology focused on the mind, mystical theology sprang primarily from the heart, the affectus.” (Pg. 6 – I love that, affectus…affect us…touch our heart!) “…the way he says that mystical theology offers a knowledge of God that comes from love.”

And Fr. Harmless used this wonderful analogy of marriage to explain that, words that were so life-giving to me this morning that I texted them to Steve, a man who shows me God’s face every day:

Think about the knowledge that married people have of one another. They have not read books about one another. They have not studied each other academically. They know one another through the union of their lives, an intimacy that touches heart and mind and body…it is not what we would call an intellectual knowledge. It is certainly not theoretical. Instead it is a love-wrought knowledge. (6)

After that text I emailed Wendy Wright, my theology professor who introduced me to the mystics as part of our coursework, I was so grateful!

(I am getting to why I go, by the way, it just has to run its course through the journey I have had with this book this morning. That’s what I do best. Blather.)

So as I was contemplating love-wrought knowledge and “the embrace of unitive love,” (as Gerson put it, that whole affectus thing) Fr. Harmless began with a chapter on a modern mystic, Thomas Merton, a man who converted to Catholicism during college and eventually became a Trappist (of the Benedictine tradition) monk and priest. He was a prolific writer (and now I need to get some more books…), but Fr. Harmless quoted from one in particular, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. The title of the book alone might be a partial description of why I went the first time. But it was the quotation that said, “Julie, here are the words you needed to say to Tom. Get to Houston and write him!”

From a man who had decided the world we live in was a place to escape from, came this:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, and they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence in a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life; but the conception of “separation from the world” that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion: the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being…And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: “Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.” … It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes; yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. (30-31)

He went on and it just got better:

A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstakes. I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate…There are no strangers!

Here it comes, this is what I tried in my own feeble, stumbling words to say to you about why I go:

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts [affectus!] where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed… (31)

The Aziz family, refugees from Iraq living in Aleppo, Syria, August, 2010.

It was on that first trip back in 2010, as I told you. We were in Aleppo, invited into the home and to the dinner table of the Aziz family, displaced to Syria from Iraq by our war. We could see the depth of pain in their manner, in their eyes, in their reduced circumstances. Where there should have been hatred and shunning directed at their American visitors, there was an invitation to the table, the table of grace. The Lord’s table.

And that is why I go. My eyes have been opened to see the other, to see me, to see us all as we really are: Beloved children of God.

Affectus. Let it affect us. It has affected me.

Thanks be to God.

Soli deo gloria.

Celebrating Christmas

Another question from my final exam in Theology 331, Jesus Christ, Liberator, asked us how we might celebrate the birth of the Christ child differently this year after being in this class. Here was my answer.

As a family of people who profess to follow Jesus – Christians – we act in faith and hope and love. These virtues are the highest exercise of our humanity, and in them we participate in the very life of God. But what does this look like for us as we look ahead to Christmas? Do we just believe that Jesus was incarnated so we could have a new television? Is that all we hope for on December 25? Is that how we show our love for each other as husband and wife? Is it so small? This Christmas we need to seek more deeply what it means to be human persons beloved by God so much that he would share this human life.

It begins in prayer. Not the prayer that says, “Bless us Father with all good gifts, especially the 55” one,” but the one that draws us to the foot of the cross and centers us in this reminder of how much he poured out his love for us. Let us pray that our lives would be poured out for each other and for the sister we share this home with. In the light of a candle burning, let us look around at each other’s faces and see the gift of each one and our need for each other. We cannot do this alone, but only together.

As we come together at the supper table, we can break the bread and drink the cup in communion as we remember what Jesus taught here: in the broken bread and poured out cup, he is there, and we share it together. In this sacrament of meal, our lives are joined in a dance of humanity and divinity. The only cookies we make this year shall not be a sugarfest of over-consumption, but a reason to walk the neighborhood and share this gift of love in the form of food with those around us.

martha-stewart-treeTo counter the culture that says BUY! BUY! BUY!, that is what makes for a good solid marketing dream of Christmas, we shall expend our resources in ways to benefit the poor and outcast in our community. The opportunities to provide for the homeless and helpless are the messages we will look to. Instead of presents under a tree in the living room, we will mark each ornament as a gift we have made to someone in the name of love. Here is the one for Wendi who needed a ride to Bible study. Here is the one for Verda Leigh who needed a weekly phone call to remind her that God loves her. Here is one for the gift to Bread for the World, to remind ourselves that advocating for the voiceless is a joy to participate in. Here is one for Amariah, in the hope that she is back with her family in California after a long bus ride from Omaha.

And we will mark the eve of Christmas in worship as we share in song and word with those who have shared our lives, who have mourned with us and rejoiced with us and listened to us unburden our hearts for people living in war in Syria and Iraq.

Jesus Christ: Liberator

I have had a great year as a student at Creighton University. Earlier this year, as I was fulfilling some undergraduate theology credits for my master’s program, I was enrolled in an amazing class with a professor who inspired me. The class was Theology 331, Jesus Christ: Liberator, a christology class. Here is one of the answers I gave on our final exam last May. Who is Jesus?

Mt St Francis last supper

“For me, in the figure of Monseñor Romero, Christ passed through El Salvador.” This one line in a documentary has stayed with me since I watched it. This is the Jesus I have come to know in my life, through my readings of scripture and story and narrative. The Jesus who reaches out to those left behind or discarded. I first met this Jesus as a seven-year old whose mother had died. That poor lost little girl was tended to by three nuns when she made her first communion in second grade. They saw her grief and worry and brought her to the table.

I have seen that Jesus who cares in a very special way for the poor all over the world as I have walked the halls of congress with my own disabled sister as we advocated for food and nutrition policy, for sustainable development, for increased funding for HIV/AIDS patients.

I have seen that Jesus in Iraq and Syria as he walks in the refugee camps and tends to newborn babies whose parents have nothing and no one to turn to. I have heard others tell his story in the form of kidnapped and murdered priests, just like Oscar Romero.

Mt St Francis Love like FrancisAs I have participated in this class and read all three authors, I have read the words out loud to my precious husband. “Look! Do you see this? This is what I keep saying over and over! You cannot profess to love God and not love your neighbor. These two are inseparable! That neighbor on the side of the road who looks scary is obviously in need of help. We can’t walk by her like the others.” What would Jesus do seems so cliché…but how do we answer that question, cliché or not?

That question and so many others rise from the depth of a heart that has not been immunized against empathy and compassion by the consumer society around me, but inflamed by the lack of justice in our laws and institutions. Sometimes it has been a lonely journey to walk. To sit in church and hear about Jesus week after week, but only in the sense that he is some kind of ideal absolute, is not what has given me cause to step out and walk with him. That Jesus is an idol, a statue on the shelf that I cannot reach.

The Jesus in this class is the Jesus that asks me to open my eyes and look around to see that others need this hands-on, give-me-a-hug, wipe-my-tears-away, human contact that reminds them that they, too, are human beings, made to love and to be loved. This is the Jesus who tells me to conscienticize myself: ask the questions of why is the world like this? What have we done to make it this way? What can we do to liberate and heal it? See. Judge. Act.

From my first reading of the entirety of scripture upon discovering Micah 6:8, my faith finally had the simplicity of six words to guide me: Act justly. Love tenderly. Walk humbly. This is the praxis of Jesus that his life demonstrated and I believe him when he tells me in Matthew 25 that our judgment will be based on this. Even when we don’t call on his name and step out in this way not expecting to see him in the moment, he is there, and we are loving him by loving our neighbor.

This is the Jesus who calls out the rich who withhold from the poor and can’t understand how serving the common good is how we all develop fully as persons, and the hypocritical church leader whose letter-following legality keeps people out and denies them hope.

This is the Jesus I have met in the community of this class. This is Rutilio Grande, Oscar Romero, Pope Francis, anyone who stands against the commodity form and sees their lonely neighbor as a person in need of human contact and comes into her life as friend. I have met this Jesus in this class and will always be grateful that I had the chance to share him with others.

Dona nobis pacem.

Holy Tears

This is my final reflection paper from my recently completed mini-class in my master’s program at Creighton University. The class was the first part of three on the history of Christian spirituality, and was appropriately titled “Martyrs and Monks.”

I first traveled to the Middle East, Syria specifically, in August, 2010. This was before the war in Syria, and the country was intact. Muslims and Christians lived together in a secular, mostly peaceful society. I visited a number of places, and one that struck me deeply was St. Simeon, the ruins of a fifth century church near Aleppo built around the pillar that St. Simeon the Stylite sat on for most of his life, praying to God. I had quiet moments of contemplation as I thought about this saint and his life and his attitude of prayer. But the highlight of my trip in 2010 was a visit to Aleppo and the Presbyterian church. This church had an amazing outreach to refugees from the American-led war in Iraq, which had begun in 2003. I met a woman named Nawal, a faithful and prayerful saint of her church, who chastised us (and rightfully so) for what our country had done to the Iraqi people. I have never forgotten Nawal, and had the chance to reconnect with her this past summer in Lebanon, but I will reflect on that later. We also had the chance to share a meal with an Iraqi refugee family in the less than modest apartment they could afford.

As a member of a group of women traveling together to learn about our sister Presbyterian church in Syria, we were each given the opportunity to lead devotion. I had chosen this passage in Acts: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (2:44-47a). As I began to read, I was overwhelmed with tears and could not get through to the end. Hearing Nawal’s words to us about what we had done to the Iraqis, being welcomed into the home of an Iraqi refugee family who shared the bounty of their poverty with us in the hospitality that is the hallmark of Middle Eastern culture, I was utterly convicted of the corporate sin my people committed against the Iraqis. It was this memory that grabbed my heart as I read the readings for this class.

Over and over in the stories of the desert harlots – of Mary Magdalene and Mary of Egypt specifically – there are waterfalls of tears. Anselm’s prayer to Mary Magdalene captures it well:

St. Mary Magdalene,
You came with springing tears
To the spring of mercy, Christ…
How can I find words to tell
About the burning love with which you sought Him
Weeping at the sepulcher
And wept for Him in your seeking?…
For the sweetness of love He shows Himself
Who would not for the bitterness of tears.[1]

In his gospel, Luke tells us that a woman (possibly Mary Magdalene) who was a sinner, washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and dried them with her hair in an act of repentance (7:37-38). Mary of Egypt tells us, “Thus I understood the promise of God and realized how God receives those who repent…‘you will find rest.’ When I heard the voice say this, I believed it had come because of me, and I cried out weeping…”[2] As she tells Zossima her story of her prostitute’s life and the temptation to return to it she tells him, “When such thoughts grew in me, I would fling myself on the ground and flood the earth with weeping.”[3] When she asks Zossima to pray for her, he falls to his knees and his prayers and tears flow together.[4]

The connective tissue of tears and prayers in these stories resonated deeply with me and my experiences in the Middle East in 2010 and continuing for nine more trips through this past summer, including time in Lebanon, Iraq, and the now war-torn Syria, all places where the desert fathers and mothers actually lived. Why do the tears flow so easily, and especially in times of their prayers and mine? “Tears connect us with a part of ourselves and an expression of our deepest feelings that is far beyond our words or even our thoughts. Tears are a way that our bodies express our hearts.”[5] Said another way, “Tears are an outward manifestation of a biological release that is usually triggered by a profound emotional sensation.”[6] Being able to express emotion instead of suppressing it is a way for me to be real. On the thinking-feeling spectrum of the Myers-Briggs assessment, I register an absolute zero on thinking and am off the chart on feeling. To not express my feelings, especially to God in prayer, would violate the very meaning of prayer, according to Mother Maria. “It is only if we are rooted and grounded in reality, if we have found our own ‘heart,’ if we do not hide, that we can truly pray. All true prayer is a prayer of the heart, because it is the heart – not our physical heart but the deepest centre of our being – where we are touched by the divine, where we are fully ourselves, fully alive, fully one…present before the face of God.”[7]

As I have read through these texts, I have been thankful for what my friends have called my prayer language, which is tears of the heart. In further reading, I discovered St. Catherine of Siena and her great question to God: what is the reason and the fruit of tears?[8] Reading about the six kinds of tears God explained to her, I find that mine fall somewhere between level three and four:

Sweet tears of imperfect love: These are the sweet tears of those who have abandoned sinful ways and are beginning to serve God because they have begun to know and love him; however, their love is still imperfect, causing their tears to be imperfect as well. The person’s life is then characterized by exercising virtue, acknowledging God’s goodness, practicing self-discovery in the light of God’s goodness, and moving away from fear and toward hope in God’s mercy.

Sweet tears of perfect love: Perfect tears of mature love come from those who have developed perfect love for their neighbor and learned to love God without regard for themselves. These are the people who live the words of the Great Commandment: to love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and to love your neighbor as yourself.[9]

Between those two levels is a maturing, a growth in love and in humility; a growth in the knowledge that it is only God’s love and goodness that invites us closer to him and his mercy, and away from our own sins and fears. I think those tears of mine somewhere between the imperfect and the perfect fall into the same place that St. Benedict described: “With growth in humility came ever-deeper awareness of one’s own sinfulness, as well as compassion and tears for the sins of other people. Such mindfulness meant deep feeling, and deep feeling meant tears.”[10]

As Mother Maria talks about the prayer of the heart, I discovered that my tears open my heart to the love of God. My heart moves from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh, which is what God promises in Ezekiel 36:26. Tears are a part of that process of heart softening, making real meaningful prayer possible. Abba Poemen says it this way: “The nature of water is soft, that of stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone.”[11]

With the Presbyterian church in Aleppo, Syria, August, 2010.

With the Presbyterian church in Aleppo, Syria, August, 2010.

So as I end this reflection, I want to return to my story of Nawal in Aleppo. Sitting on the porch of the Carslow Building at Ain Al-Kassis (which translates to “fountain of the father,” an appropriate description for how my tears flow!) in the mountains above Beirut, Lebanon, I was waiting for some of the Syrian women to arrive for the annual gathering of Presbyterian women in the Synod of Lebanon and Syria. A young woman came and sat on the porch with me, and as it turned out, we were Facebook friends although we had never met. Her name is Nisryn, and she lives in Paris, France. She had come to the conference because her mom was making the long and dangerous journey from Aleppo to be there as well. She told me it had been six years since she had seen her mother. As we sat and talked, I realized who the woman she was talking about was. “I know your mother!” I exclaimed. I jumped up to get my laptop and found this picture from my 2010 trip. I am standing behind the little boy in the front row, and Nisryn’s mom Nawal is to the right of me in the blue dress. Nisryn’s mom is the same woman who gave me pause to weep as I read the text from Acts about sharing everything, and no one was in need. She was the woman who showed me what the hands and feet of Jesus look like when serving the refugees of war. And now she was living in Aleppo still, a victim of another war and was coming to experience Sabbath at the women’s conference. Here I was, sitting with her daughter, and together we prayed at the fountain of the father for her safe travel…and our tears flowed as we came into the presence of God together and brought Nawal there with us.

Nawal, me, Nisryn, Ain al Kassis, Lebanon, July, 2016

Nawal, me, Nisryn, Ain al Kassis, Lebanon, July, 2016

It is only because we long for the presence of God, for a glimpse of his perfect beauty, for holiness, for ceaseless prayer, for union of love, for Paradise, that our hearts break with sadness when we realize how far away from it we are. It is this sadness – this “affliction” – which, I think, the Fathers called “compunction” and why they called the life of prayer – the life of trying to pray – “white martyrdom” – a way of pain. Without the longing, without repentance, without the breaking of the heart, there can be no practice of prayer and no true prayer on earth at all.[12]

These two weeks of reading the stories of the desert fathers and the harlots of the desert have touched a deep place in my heart. The message I took was so clear. My life of praying with tears is a gift I take with me in my experiences of ministry with and for the people I am privileged to journey with in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. In repenting – in turning to God – in this way, I am my true self. I have found my heart, and it has been softened with tears of mercy and compassion. I know I have many more to shed.

Bibliography

Kangas, Billy. “The Role of Tears in the Spiritual Life: Lessons from the Desert Fathers.” The Orant. Entry posted May 2, 2011. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/billykangas/2011 /05/the-role-of-tears-in-the-spiritual-life-lessons-from-the-desert-fathers.html (accessed November 2, 2016).

Sheetz, Jenny. “The Gift of Tears: A Reflection.” stjosephinstitute.com. http://www.stjosephinstitute.com/_Assets/pdf/jennysheetz/The%20Gift%20of%20Tears.pdf (accessed November 2, 2016).

Stewart, Columba. Prayer and Community: the Benedictine Tradition. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998.

Ward, Benedicta. Harlots of the Desert: a Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Sources. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1987.

Zeleski, Irma. Encounter with a Desert Mother, 108-126.

Footnotes

[1] Benedicta Ward, Harlots of the Desert: a Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Sources (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1987), 20.

[2] Ibid, 48.

[3] Ibid, 50.

[4] Ibid, 51.

[5] Billy Kangas, “The Role of Tears in the Spiritual Life: Lessons from the Desert Fathers,” The Orant, entry posted May 2, 2011, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/billykangas/ 2011/05/the-role-of-tears-in-the-spiritual-life-lessons-from-the-desert-fathers.html (accessed November 2, 2016).

[6] Jenny Sheetz, “The Gift of Tears: A Reflection,” stjosephinstitute.com, http://www. stjosephinstitute.com/_Assets/pdf/jennysheetz/The%20Gift%20of%20Tears.pdf  (accessed November 2, 2016), 1.

[7] Irma Zeleski, Encounter with a Desert Mother, 110.

[8] Sheetz, 3.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Columba Stewart, Prayer and Community: the Benedictine Tradition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998), 49.

[11] Sheetz, 4.

[12] Zeleski, 125.

The work of peace

Homs peace signsI am now officially a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Ministry program at Creighton University here in Omaha. I have spent two weeks with the other members of my program in resident classes there in June. What a joy to meet face-to-face with these wonderful young people! Most of our class time together will be spent online, discussing in Facebook-like posts on what we are reading about, so be together in the classroom was great fun.

During the weekend that came between the two weeks, twelve of us spent time together in an Ignatian silent retreat led by one of the Jesuits from the Creighton community. Father Larry Gillick guided us through those hours of silence with scripture to pray on, stories to think on and the reminder that our identity is found in what we receive from God and not in what we achieve on our own or what the world tells us we are.

A silent retreat. I survived. And yet I still have to make it through an eight-day silent retreat to fulfull the requirements of the class. EIGHT DAYS! Please pray for me. 🙂

I think back on the wonder of that weekend on this day as I prepare to leave once again for Lebanon. I will be spending precious time with sisters in Christ, many of them from Syria. I think how the luxury of quiet would be to them in the days of war they continue to walk through. I think they would love to hear…

Bird song

Wind song

Stillness

Quiet

Peace

One of the best things Father Larry gave me on this retreat was a name: Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. Father Larry would bring a well-worn Braille book of poetry with him when he came to our gatherings to direct us. The poetry was all by Gerard Hopkins, a Jesuit and poet from the nineteenth century, who had a way with language that brings me to tears. As we were meeting in the library of the retreat center for these meetings, I investigated the card catalog for some of Fr. Hopkins’ work. Surely in the Jesuit library in the Jesuit retreat center I would find a book of Jesuit poetry…

I was not disappointed.

In my quiet time (there was a lot!) I thumbed through the book and found this waiting for me like a gift under the Christmas tree:

Peace by Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

When will you ever, Peace, wild wood dove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?
When, when, Peace, will you, Peace? I’ll not play hypocrite
To my own heart: I yield you do come sometimes; but
That piecemeal peace is poor peace. What pure peace allows
Alarms of wars, the daunting wars, the death of it?

O surely, reaving Peace, my Lord should leave in lieu
Some good! And so he does leave Patience exquisite,
That plumes to Peace thereafter. And when Peace here does house
He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,
He comes to brood and sit.

“He comes with work to do.”

peace.jpgThere it was. The peace I have been praying for, and continue to, requires work. It is not going to just sit there and say, “Here I am! All is quiet now.” It is the beginning of work and not an end. We have work to do to make peace and keep peace.

And so I go to be with those who are peacemakers and peacekeepers. And they are blessed. Says so in Matthew 5:9, you can look it up.

Just as Fr. Larry introduced me to Fr. Hopkins and his beautiful poetry and this special one about peace, he also gave me a scripture to contemplate which describes the work I am to do, and you can too if you want to join me in working for peace:

Finally, brothers an sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)

Back to work!

Dona nobis pacem.

Narrowing the distance

20160409 cranes photoHere we go again.

Steve and I are sitting in the airport in Minneapolis as we wait for our flight to Paris to board. From Paris, it is on to Beirut, Lebanon, and a rendezvous with our precious brothers and sisters in the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon. As always, we are traveling with The Outreach Foundation and our intrepid leader, Marilyn Borst. After being in a consultation with NESSL and their global partners, we will make our way back into Syria.

It always make my heart sing to be setting off on the long journey to an ancient land, a land where the church was born and even Saul-turned-Paul saw the light, was blinded, healed and rose from the darkness to preach the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This time I am going not as a church employee but as a theology student, and I just wanted to start this trip out with a short blog reflecting some truth from one of my classes: THL331, Jesus Christ: Liberator, led by Dr. Thomas W. Kelly, professor theology at Creighton University.

One of our texts for that class is a book that Dr. Kelly wrote with a very appropriate title for me coming from a church with the vision statement, “…on the journey with the living Christ.” The name of his book is When the Gospel Grows Feet, and it is about a Jesuit martyr from El Salvador, Rutilio Grande, and the church in El Salvador, and the gospel of liberation that has been preached from the first day of Jesus’ ministry. I have brought that book and my other required readings with me to keep up with the classes I will be missing and as I sit here in the airport, this is what I read:

“The Eucharist is the symbol of a shared table, with a stool for each person, and tablecloths long enough for everyone. It is the symbol of Creation, which requires redemption. It is already being sealed with martyrdom!” (From Fr. Grande’s last homily before he was assassinated)

This all-inclusive meal, the Eucharist, was the symbol par excellence for Rutilio that God wanted everyone to have a seat at the table of creation. He wanted this symbol of Jesus’ final meal to influence and structure social relationships very concretely. What followed in his homily was a careful argument for what the role of the church should be in the context of El Salvador, how that role should imitate the incarnation of Christ, and how it should perceive the world and its people. After a brief introduction of a church in service to the world, fragile but incarnated in history, the homily is divided into three distinct parts: (1) equality of the children of God, (2) the risk of living the Gospel, and (3) persecuted like Jesus of Nazareth. (Page 208)

There are a lot of geographical miles between El Salvador and Syria. But this I know: the church and its saints in El Salvador and Syria bring me closer to the meaning of this Gospel and that distance should be made smaller as we draw closer to it.

Dona nobis pacem.