Lent

With Your Rod and Your Staff You Comfort Me

My car recently had a flat tire, and, as it was a nice day, I decided to change it myself. Or at least attempt to; I’m not exactly known for my practical skill set. I emptied out my car’s trunk and assembled what I thought I would need to change the tire. I struggled for a while (what is that thing supposed to do?) before deciding I didn’t really want to spend the entire day changing a tire, and I called AAA. The gentleman who responded had my tire changed in under five minutes. He had experience, and he had the right tools.

Having the right tools, it seems to me, is the answer to many of life’s problems and challenges.

In While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks, a chapter is devoted to a tool I’d heard of but never thought much about: the staff. Everyone knows the Psalmist’s words, “your rod and your staff comfort me,” but perhaps, like me, you never wondered precisely what this rod and this staff are that provide such a comfort to a frightened soul.

The rod, it turns out, is defensive. For centuries, shepherds encouraged the flock with their rods; they threw the rods at predators approaching their flocks. Most importantly, perhaps, the sheep were made to “pass under the rod” when they were counted and inspected every night, as the shepherd checked each one for any wounds or the presence of parasites.

The other wooden implement used by the shepherd is the staff. Tall enough to lean on, frequently curved at the top, it’s a tool with many uses: it’s used to keep sheep apart from each other during lambing, for rescue operations, and to guide sheep through a pass. A very useful tool indeed.

For a more vivid description of the staff in action, we turn to the biography of Dr. Alexander Duff, a Christian missionary to India who lived in the 19th century:

In 1849 Dr. Duff was traveling near Simla under the shadow of the great Himalaya mountains. One day his way led to a narrow bridle path cut out on the face of a steep ridge; along this narrow path that ran so near the great precipice he saw a shepherd leading on his flock following him, but now and then the shepherd stopped and looked back. If he saw a sheep creeping up too far on the one hand, or going too near the edge of the dangerous precipice on the other, he would at once turn back and go to it, gently pulling it back.

He had a long rod as tall as himself, round the lower half of which was twisted a band of iron. The thick band was really a staff, and was ready for use whenever he saw a hyena or wolf or some other troublesome animal coming near the sheep, for especially at night these creatures prowled about the flock. With the iron part of the rod he would give a good blow when an attack was threatened.

I’m reading that passage and there’s part of me that’s saying, lucky sheep! What a feeling of security!

It’s a feeling not a lot of us are experiencing right now. The world around us, we have learned, is unsafe. In fact, we’re understanding that even the people around us have become, in these days of the coronavirus, a threat to our wellbeing. No one feels any sense of security: losing jobs and income, worrying about our families’ health, not knowing what might happen next. Lucky sheep, indeed!

Jesus is called the Great Shepherd. He defends his sheep with his rod, but he also brings back the wandering or straying sheep with his shepherd’s crook. The staff has a curved end that fits the neck of the sheep perfectly, taking care of little lambs as well as the grown sheep. He can defend the flock from the wolves by his rod, and correct us by his rod when we need it; he keeps his sheep close to him by his staff. This is how Micah referred to the staff, writing “Shepherd your people with your staff, the flock of your heritage that lives apart in a woodland, in the midst of an orchard.” (Micah 7:14).

God loves us so much not to leave us to ourselves. He is the shepherd whose life is closely intertwined with ours. If he didn’t love us, he’d let us wander off like sheep over a cliff. His rod protects us from the enemy and he uses his staff to keep us close to the Shepherd. Jesus is the Great Shepherd who uses both the rod when we need it—and the staff when we need it, too.

Let’s take a look at what the staff means to a shepherd out in the field with his sheep. Being a shepherd is a difficult job. It’s not the stained-glass window picture of someone standing there looking rather beatific. Not at all. Shepherds work hard, and they get dirty. If you’re a shepherd, there are three reasons you need the staff:

  • First, you need it because you’re leading the sheep out in the country. You’re on rocky ground, so you need a staff to help keep you stable. In that sense, it’s like a hiking stick. It catches you when you fall.
  • The second reason you as a shepherd need a staff is that it’s an offensive weapon. If somebody’s coming against the sheep, you use the staff to fight them, to keep them away. Your job, after all, is to protect the sheep.
  • Then there’s a third reason: sometimes sheep have minds of their own. They aren’t always very smart, and they need correction. They might wander off. When that happens, you can use the staff to pull them back into the flock, to keep your sheep in line.

Of course, these are the very things that Jesus the Shepherd is doing in your life. He wants to help keep you steady, particularly when you’re walking in a difficult season, as we all are now. He wants to fight on your behalf against the enemies that come against you. And if you’ve made a commitment to say, “I will follow you,” he takes you very seriously.

So if he says, “Go this way,” and you’re going another way, he’ll use his staff to correct you, to bring you back in line. Not because he’s mean, but because he loves you, and because if you go that way, you could encounter a pack of wolves. Your Shepherd wants to keep you safe.

All three of these are ways Jesus demonstrates his love:

  • By steadying us when life is hard.
  • By fighting on our behalf when we need somebody to do so (and we all do from time to time).
  • By correcting us when we’re going the wrong way.

But this staff represents not just Jesus’ ministry, it also represents the Church. God has given the Church a community responsibility: we are called to be the shepherd’s staff in the community where God has placed them.

Steadying

Who in the community needs people to come and stand beside them and steady them because life is hard? That’s the Church’s ministry to the community. There’s a reason Jesus emphasizes the same things over and over again: Care for the weak. Care for the sick. Care for the poor. A Church that claims to be under the authority of the Good Shepherd has to demonstrate that kind of care to those in need.

We’ve all been the recipients. We’ve received forgiveness when we didn’t deserve it. We’ve received mercy when we didn’t deserve it. He gave his life for us, he saved us, even though we didn’t deserve it. He has steadied us in our walk. And if Jesus is steadying us in our walk, being part of a community means we need to take up this staff and care for others. Because that’s what Jesus is doing for us. We are here to steady those in need. This coronavirus crisis is a particularly good time to show we all belong together… even when we cannot actually come together.

Protecting

Who are the people in your community who need someone to come and fight on their behalf? The system isn’t helping them; their neighbors aren’t helping them; even often their own family members aren’t helping them. Who are the people who need somebody to come and stand beside them and say, “What can we do to help?” It could be legal assistance. It could be education. It could be someone helping them find counseling and care. It could be prayer, because more often than not, fighting the battle in prayer is often the thing that breaks loose what needs to happen in somebody’s life. There isn’t one of us here who doesn’t need that. I hope none of us feels they can get through this crisis without saying, “I need somebody to pray for me right now.” Because we all do. And God has built that kind of interdependence between us.

Correcting

We used to rely on families or bosses to help raise people up into positions of responsibility, to love them enough to correct them when they needed correcting. But part of what we’re wrestling with is that people in responsible leadership positions no longer take time or care to mentor, to correct, and to reach out. And so there are many people who haven’t learned important lessons, who don’t understand the need they might have for correction, because they think they should be free to do whatever they want. But that’s not true freedom. Our freedom is the freedom to serve the common good, to reach out to others, to care for people, to give sacrificially. All of us need this staff of correction in our lives.

That’s what it means for the Church to take on the ministry of the shepherd in the communities it serves. That’s what it means for the Church to be God’s steadying, protecting, and correcting staff.

And remember that if the shepherd starts off with one hundred sheep, he will surely bring home one hundred sheep, so we can say, with the psalmist, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).

So now let’s imagine again. Imagine yourself to be one of the woolly sheep in a large flock. You don’t think much. You pretty much follow whatever the sheep in front of you is doing. You make a lot of noise when you’re hungry, or unhappy about something. You might not think; but what you do is sense. You can sense danger. You can sense fear. And right now you’re feeling both of those things.

You don’t know why you’re afraid, but you know in your heart there’s something to be afraid of. You huddle even closer to your neighbors. Maybe they can keep the Bad Thing away from you. Maybe you can hide in the midst of them. But you realize that they, too, are shivering; they, too have picked up on the danger. Everyone is at risk. Oh, no! What are you all to do?

And then you hear his voice, the man who takes care of you. He is shouting, but not at the sheep, not at you. He is shouting and running after something, his rod in the air. When he comes back, you feel it right away: the fear has lifted. The danger is gone. You didn’t even know how close you came to disaster—but he did, and he kept it away from you.

There’s no reason to belabor this point. Carry the image with you as we move through this terrible time of a global pandemic. Carry it as we get closer to the end of our Lenten journey, to the final cruel week. Jesus is our shepherd, but he is also the Lamb of God, ready to die so his flock might live on.

 

by Jeannette de Beauvoir

 

 

 

 

Inspiration, Lent

I Am Patrick: From Slave to Saint

Finally, a film on St. Patrick that’s not about snakes and shamrocks – not that there is anything wrong with that! Welsh actor, John Rhys-Davis (Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Lord of the Rings) does a superb job as the older St. Patrick who tells us about his life and journeys. I wish I could say the same about Robert McCormack, the young Patrick, but thankfully his screen time is limited.

The film’s successful and accurate portrayal of Ireland’s favorite son relies on its heavy use of Patrick’s own words from his Confessions for the film’s narrative. As a young man in Britain, he comes from a wealthy family and though his father is a deacon, Patrick is not religious and prefers a life of privilege and dissoluteness. The turning point comes when, at sixteen, Irish pirates capture him and force him into slavery for six years to the point of near starvation. However, his imprisonment becomes a time of conversion, prayer and spiritual development. The Lord’s powerful mercy comes upon him as he repents for the sins of his youth and recommits to living his Catholic faith.

During this time of fervor, he receives what would be the first of many visions from the Lord telling him that he would escape and make his way back to Britain and his loved ones. But Patrick soon realizes that he is called to return to Ireland and that despite the many difficulties he would encounter, the Lord calls him to bring the Gospel to the inhabitants of this rough and wild land. He is seen as a foreigner who opposes the Celtic kings, takes no part in the Druid ceremonies, and when falsely accused by his own bishops who want him to return to Britain – his stance never waivers. Patrick converts thousands of Irish to Christianity. His trust is solely in Jesus Christ, His Lord and Savior.

I’ve seen other films about Patrick and none of them have told me how he converted all of Ireland – a task that seems almost impossible for just one man. This film reveals his “secret.” He formed small groups of believers and when he felt that they were strong enough to be on their own, he left to start anew on the next town or tribe. As he left, Patrick encouraged them to spread God’s word to all those around them.

A word of praise must be given to cinematographer, Colm Hogan. I found his shots of the Irish countryside to be a fitting tribute to the beauty of the Emerald Isle.

As Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, Bishop of Providence, so nicely sums it up,In short, Saint Patrick was a good, courageous, and holy man whose entire life was informed by his encounter with God and his belief in the Gospel. His impact on the Christian Church and the whole Western World is enormous. That’s why his memory, celebrated on March 17th, deserves to be marked with much more meaning than can be offered by civic parades, green beer and shamrocks. Clearly, the movie I Am Patrick points us in the right direction.”

If you’re looking for something special to do for St. Patrick’s Day, here it is – a film on a great saint he entire family can enjoy! Click here for theatrical release locations.

 

By Sr. Christine Salvatore Setticase, FSP

https://www.fathomevents.com/events/i-am-patrick

[Photo credits: ©2020 The Christian Broadcasting Network Inc. All rights reserved.]

Lent

Social Distancing: Only the Shepherd Knows The Way Through

We’re living in a time when it’s easy to panic. Calls for quarantine, for social distancing, for staying away from others are all very scary to hear. There’s certainly more than enough fear to go around.

The Lenten program we chose months ago, before the coronavirus was the threat it’s become today, is the extraordinary book While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks. And indeed God must have directed us to that book, for it is also relevant to the situation in which we all find ourselves. Timothy Laniak—who spent years in the Near East observing the lives of shepherds—remarks on the singular mentality of sheep. Here’s what he observed,

“First one sheep jumped to its death. Then another and another, and then dozens more. Having left their herds to graze while they ate breakfast, stunned Turkish shepherds now watched as nearly 1,500 others leapt off the same cliff” (p.201)

“It is,” he concludes, “a curious behavior of sheep that once one picks a trail, the rest simply follow the tail in front of them without regard for their destination.”

I will be honest: up until recently, I didn’t understand how this sort of thing could happen. When I first read the passage I quoted above, about the sheep following each other off the cliff, my first thought was, how stupid are they? I felt terribly superior to the poor sheep. I would never do anything that silly.

Oh, really? Like many of us, in the first days of understanding that an epidemic was heading our way, I panicked. What would happen to my cat if I fell ill? Have I written my will? How will my elderly neighbors survive? Will I ever see my stepchildren again?

The shepherds know how easily panicked their sheep are; that’s why they’re there. They love the sheep. They know them each by name, or personality, or size. They watch as their sheep pass under their rod, making sure every single one is accounted for, morning and night. They make sure to lead the sheep onto the right paths, the paths that will bring them to sweet grass or a desert oasis of blessed water. They keep the sheep from following the wrong path, from jumping off the cliff.

There are so many paths one could follow, crisscrossing each other, leading in different directions. This is as true for us as it is for the flocks in the Holy Land. And we’ve seen the results, already, of panic over the coronavirus: grocery stores stripped of everything on their shelves, fights breaking out over rolls of toilet paper.

If left to our own devices, how would we know which path to take? Whom would we follow?

Blessedly, we are not left to our own devices. We have a Shepherd who loves us and cares for us. Who shows us the way to live, the path to take, so that we can be in communion with him and, together, become a community of faith. Even if for a time that community needs to be virtual.

Part of the reason for a society to have laws is to keep its citizens on the right paths, the paths that won’t take them over the edge of a cliff, the paths that will enable everyone to live and thrive together. Breaking the law means moving off on a different path. Breaking the law doesn’t just endanger the lawbreaker, it endangers the whole community. We’re seeing that acted out right now, as we’re urged to maintain social distancing, to stop going out, to be cognizant that we can all endanger each other without meaning to: those are the paths that will help us all survive.

The Bible is filled with imagery that speaks of walking in God’s ways, on God’s paths. “My steps,” say the Psalmist, “have kept to your paths; my feet have not faltered” (Ps. 17:5). Elsewhere he implores, “Make known to me your ways, Lord; teach me your paths” (Ps. 25:4).

This imagery isn’t accidental. We live in a complex world where it’s often difficult to perceive the right way through any given situation—much less a way through the days and years of our lives. “Midway on life’s journey, I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost,” laments Dante in the Inferno.

It’s fundamentally simple. Our Shepherd has our best interests at heart; we are called simply to follow where he leads. The path he’ll take us on isn’t always easy; at times it will feel rocky and hard to follow. But if we trust and love him, we know he won’t take us on a path we cannot follow, or on a path that doesn’t ultimately lead where we need to go. For the sheep, that is the safety of their enclosure at night; for us, in the night of our lives, it is the joy of the Kingdom.

Sheep-paths are worn into ruts because they are the best way through the landscape. Generations of shepherds have guided their sheep into these righteous ruts. And if we look at the history of the Church, we’ll see there are some righteous ruts there, too.

Do we all follow the right path, the one on which Jesus is leading us? What would be helpful to us along the journey? As we all live through this uncertain time—and cannot perceive for ourselves the right way forward—trusting our Shepherd to watch over us is the best pandemic precaution we can take. And with additional time to reflect, we might be able to add some practices to keep us on the right path. What would help you trough this crisis and moving forward? Morning prayer? A daily Scripture reading? An evening examen? As we move through these troubled times, let’s pray for guidance to the right path.

 

by Jeannette de Beauvoir
Image by Steven Lasry for Unsplash

 

Lent

Making paths where there are none

Lent is a good time to deepen our gaze. To be able to see what is often not on the surface. And in this deepening of the look, the desert shepherds taught me something about this ability to “see” what is not always visible. They taught me something about the look of God.

During my postulancy, I often felt that God was opening paths where there were none. And on those occasions, it always came to my mind when God opened the waters of the Red Sea for the people of Israel, to walk on dry ground and save them from Pharaoh’s army.

But already close to my entry into the novitiate, I heard in a homily that it is true that God manifests himself in our lives in a great way, as in the episode of the Red Sea. But that God is also manifested in our life in the simplicity of the little things of each day, things that can be perceptible to our humanity. And that we need God to manifest in these two ways.

And at that time, these words made me question whether God guides us by opening a path where humanly there was none, or if He guides us because He is the only one who can see that the path is there. But I never got to deepen this question.

It was only when I read about these shepherds, who can see water and pasture sources, where all other people just see the blank wilderness wasteland that I turned again to that question.

And in doing so, Isaiah’s words came to mind:

See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland (Is 43.19).

In praying all this, I realized that in truth God is able to open paths where there are none, because nothing is impossible to Him. But it also made me realize that following the Good Shepherd is more than seeing Him making way in my life. To follow the Good Shepherd is to learn from Him to acquire his gaze, a gaze that allows me to see the path even when it seems imperceptible.

A path with all its potentialities of life, the hidden sources of water, with natural shelters for protection, but also with its possible hiding places for thieves, evidence of predators, caverns or drop-offs where I can get hurt.

Shepherds spend a great deal of time watching their flocks, so much that they are criticized for this, for this apparent inactivity. But while doing so, the shepherds observe each sheep and its surroundings, in constant vigilance of what is happening, or in the concern of what might happen. Their attentive look is not only fixed on the details, but also gets to see the “big picture”.

This look of the shepherd, this time that he “spends” on observing what surrounds him, each of his sheep, the potential dangers, is not a sterile look, it’s not a waste of time, it is a look of love.

Just like the time that a father “spends” watching his baby when he sleeps, it is not a sterile look, it is not useless, it is a look of love. And in this human look we can enter a little more into the mystery of God’s love. In the way He “spends” time looking at us, in the way He sees our way.

Lent is a favorable time for us to attune our gaze to the gaze of God. To sit close to Him, and learn how to look at ourselves and to the world, in the same way that He does.

And in this communion of the look, we can find with Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the path that takes us from the arid landscapes of Lent, to the green pastures of Easter of the Resurrection.

 

by Sr. Marta Gaspar, novice

Lent

The Way of the Cross

(an interview with Sr. Mary Leonora, FSP on the publication of her new imaginative Way of the Cross booklet)

Where did the idea for doing this book come from?
The idea was not originally a book. I had written these meditations for myself and would use them often because they helped me enter the mysteries of Christ’s suffering and death. One Lenten Friday, when I was to lead the Way of the Cross in community, I decided to share them with the sisters. Afterward, many sisters approached me and said that they should be printed. Thus the idea of a book was born.

The subtitle is: A Personal Encounter. Can you talk some about what this encounter was for you, and how it can become a personal encounter for others as well?

During one of my annual retreats, the director suggested I spend a day accompanying Jesus on the Way of the Cross. Ever since I was a child, I have been very devoted to the Passion of Christ, so I was really pleased with this suggestion. I asked the Lord to let me be truly present at the terrible events of his Passion, to journey with him, to gain some understanding of what it was like and to console him in his suffering. I knew this would not be easy for me if I tried to do it alone, so I asked his Mother Mary and one of my dearest saints and mentors, Mary Magdalene, to let me walk with them the Way of Calvary. It’s not always obvious in the booklet, but I leaned on them the entire way. As each Station unfolded before me—informed by the words of Scripture, the movements of my heart and the gift of my imagination—I was drawn progressively deeper into Christ’s love for the Father and for us. I began to understand better the horrible cost of sin and the preciousness of my own soul. My desire to love Christ more completely and to renounce sin, intensified with each Station. At the end of each Station I tried to capture some of what I had experienced by writing down the prayers contained in this booklet.

I am hoping the user of this booklet will be able to take the time to enter the scene of each Station, to be part of it, and have his/her own experience accompanying the Lord. That’s why I provided simple bullet points at the beginning of each Station, that these might spark the imagination of the user. I don’t want to paint the entire scene for them. Jesus will make each one aware of the details that are important for them and their own journey with the Lord.

This book is deeply entwined with and dependent upon imaginative prayer… can you give some examples from your own life when imaginative prayer has inspired you, or gotten you through a rough spot, or gave you new insights… anything personal about using the imagination in prayer?

I am of the firm belief that everything God has given us is a gift, and it’s been given us so that we might know him better, love him more deeply, serve him more generously in this life and be happy with him forever in eternal life. The imagination is one of these gifts. I use it especially when I’m praying with Scripture (sitting at the feet of Jesus Master, when he’s preaching; joining the disciples as they journey with Him; mingling with the crowd, letting myself be healed or touched by him; watching as he talks to the Father, etc. I do the same with many sections of the Old Testament).

Honestly, imaginative prayer has been part of my life ever since I can remember. I came from a very dysfunctional family and endured a lot of physical, psychological and other forms of abuse in my early years. After each episode I would go to Jesus, tell him everything and how much I hurt; then I would imagine he held me, loved me, said good things to me. We would sing Bible songs together until I felt better and I had the courage to face life again. I didn’t know at the time that I was practicing imaginative prayer, but that’s what it was!

In later years, when I was in therapy, the priest-therapist had me enter each traumatic event of my childhood, discovering where Jesus was in that event and what he was doing and encouraging me to engage in conversation with him. It was so healing! Thus, when I discovered the Ignatian form of imaginative prayer, I was a “natural.”

It’s important when using imaginative prayer to let the Spirit lead… Some years back, after my father died and my mother completely severed all communication with me, I was feeling very “orphaned.” One day I was praying with the Gospel account of the healing of the daughter of Jairus. I had decided to enter the scene as one of the relatives of Jairus, witnessing the power and the love of Jesus, but instead I found myself on the bed (in place of the little girl), close to death. I remember thinking, “Who will go to bring Jesus to me? I have no one.” And then (in my imaginative prayer) I fell into a comatose state. Just then a hand reached toward me and lifted me up. I was alive and well and looking into the eyes of the Lord! I asked him, “Who called you?” From behind him a woman said softly, “I did.” It was Mary, his mother. With that I understood that my heavenly mother Mary was indeed my mother, that she was concerned about me, loved me, and was taking care of me. I was not “orphaned.” My relationship with the Mother of God totally changed through that prayer. If I had insisted on being a relative or simply an observer in the story, it would never have happened. It’s so very important to let the Spirit take the lead.

What makes this Way of the Cross different from others? To whom will it appeal? Who did you have in mind as an audience when writing it?

I think it’s precisely the approach through the imagination that makes this Way of the Cross different from most others. I think it will appeal to anyone who has a good imagination and wants to use it to know Jesus better and to love him more deeply. It will also appeal to people who want to develop their imagination as a means of entering in relationship with the Lord. And it will certainly appeal to anyone who wants to accompany Jesus in his Passion and Death on the Cross.

As I mentioned, I originally wrote these stations for my own prayer. After the idea came to make them available to others as well, I edited them for a greater pubic—specifically for those who love Jesus or who want to grow in their love for him.

It seems this booklet would be help to people struggling with a lot of different issues? What do you imagine Jesus saying to those who have issues of addiction, abuse, pain of any sort, grief…?

I imagine him to be saying, “I love you. I know what you are going through, even if you don’t tell me. I know your grief, your pain and where it is coming from. See, I have taken it all upon myself, suffering all the loneliness and stigma of it, all the pain and rejection, all the suffering, humiliation and judgment, all the despair it brings. I have endured it all—just so you would know how important you are to me and how much I love you. I am suffering your pain so that you will have the strength to overcome it. You are not alone. I am with you. I am just waiting for you to recognize my presence; that would mean so much to me. If you turn to Me and trust me, I will teach you how to rise from this. I will lift you up. You are precious in my sight and I love you.”

There’s probably a lot more to unpack here. What’s the question I didn’t ask?

Perhaps the question is: Why pray the Way of the Cross? Answer: Because it’s the way of redemption and the way of love.

I would simply like to encourage readers to let Jesus speak to them through his Passion. The more we read the Passion narratives of the Gospel and pray the Way of the Cross, the more we discover the incredible love the Lord has for us, and we naturally desire to respond with love. We also understand better the gravity of sin—even our own personal sin, no matter how small—which was the cause of so much suffering. And yet Jesus embraces this suffering because he wants us with him forever. He doesn’t want to lose us. And he’s telling us that if we are worth this much to him (this whole horrific Passion!), then he will certainly give us every grace we need to live as he desires.

The Way of the Cross is a great help to grow spiritually and to obtain the strength we need to overcome sin and temptation.

 

 

Lent

What darkness do you fear?

I was city-born and city-raised, living in a world that’s never dark. Even in less-well-lit spaces, cities’ myriad lights are reflected back upon them. One rarely sees the stars; one becomes accustomed to neon and fluorescent and LEDs. In some places in our cities, indeed, the night can seem as bright as the day.

The first time I was in North Africa and spent the smallest of time in the Sahara, I realized the differences in meaning night takes on there. In the desert, darkness is real, complete. If there is a moon shining—barely remarked upon if it’s ever noticed in the city—it transforms the landscape; if there is not, the stars are pinpricks of brightness, cold and light-years away, uncaring.

We who live in towns and cities and villages have one concept of darkness and night; those who live in deserts and forests and plains have another one altogether.

No matter where we live today, our experience of the night differs significantly from what our ancestors—who lived roughly half their lives in the dark—experienced. That didn’t change until humans began to gain control over fire use; from that point on, most people had access to some form of “artificial” light—and we began our persistent efforts to light up the night. The more light, the better.

Even people who have lived relatively recently—those with candles, oil lamps, and early electricity—were far more familiar with darkness than we are today. Their nocturnal world simply wasn’t as bright as ours.

So why has it been so important to us to light up the dark? There are many reasons, but the most primal has to do with fear and safety. Darkness is often seen as synonymous with evil; we speak of someone having a “dark side” or “dark thoughts,” and even those of us who live in brightly lit cities are quick to draw the curtains at night.

One of the words used in Scripture to refer to the night is tsalmavet, which can be translated as “deadly darkness.” It’s easy to see why. Darkness and night belong to predators. Out in the wild, night-time eating is risky business. Stepping out to grab a bite raises an animal’s chances of becoming another animal’s meal. Encoded somewhere in our DNA, in our collective unconscious, is the memory of that being our lot as well.

This deep, deadly darkness that is so frightening to us—frightening enough that we cling to the meager comforts of porch lights, lamps lit in empty rooms, flashlights by our bedsides—is how the prophet Jeremiah describes Israel’s forty years in exile; he uses that same word, tsalmavet.

Tsalmavet. Deadly darkness. The darkness of danger, the darkness of being lost, of wandering, of fear. The darkness of being far from home, from loved ones, from God. Of living in danger, with potential predators on every side. It’s what we all fear. And it’s pretty inevitable that, at some point, we will experience it.

In this Lenten series, we’re considering the experience of real-life shepherds… and of real-life sheep. It’s not a metaphor; it’s how many people all over the world, even today, manage to live. In Biblical times, in more agrarian cultures, there were a great many shepherds keeping their own sheep, the sheep that would feed and clothe their families, just as there are still in many parts of the world individual shepherds watching over flocks small and large. If we who live in modern communities are quick to close the curtains of our windows against the night, consider those whose lives depend upon getting their sheep safely through the hours of darkness, of tsalmavet.

 Perhaps we can take a few minutes now to try and enter into this experience. Why? Because it is, arguably, the most essential experience of our Christian lives. Jesus, we are told, is the good shepherd, the one who knows his sheep, the one who gives his life so his sheep might live. The Shepherd psalm reminds us that even if we walk through the valley of tsalmavet, we don’t need to be afraid, because God is with us: he is our shepherd. The relationship between shepherd and sheep is central to our identity.

So sit comfortably, and let your thoughts go. Wherever you are sitting, feel the room, the furniture, the context dissolve around you. You’re sitting, instead, on a hillside, surrounded by a flock of sheep. You know them all; some give you the wool you use to make clothing for your family; others will provide your family with meals. Every day, every night, you spend with them. One of the sheep has a squint; another always comes and butts your shoulder playfully. When there are lambs, they fill the air with their anxious cries, echoed by their mothers.

But the sun is sinking in the sky; dusk is gathering. Soon it will be dark.

You are only too aware of what the darkness holds. Last year, you lost three young lambs to the coyote packs that roam these hills. More recently, one of the sheep wandered off alone, and while you tracked it down, it had fallen into a gully and broken its neck in the dark. So you are very conscious of the dangers of tsalmavet.

You can feel your pulse quicken, now, as you try and herd them all into the stone enclosure where they will spend the night. It helps you keep them safe—at least they cannot wander off!—but they’re being difficult tonight, and it takes longer than usual to get them all headed in the right direction. They aren’t cooperating very much; they don’t know what you’re doing is for their safety.

You find yourself glancing over your shoulder, nervously, the shadows lengthening all around you, wondering if you’ll catch a glimpse of a predator lurking, waiting for that moment of inattention to seize an errant lamb. Until finally, with a sigh of relief, you get them all into the enclosure; you double-count, just to make sure. They are all there; your sheep are safe.

The darkness is closing in now, and you stretch out across the enclosure entrance, try to make yourself comfortable. Perhaps you’ve brought something to eat and drink. You settle in; this is where you’ll be spending all the hours of tsalmavet, this night and every night. Because of you, no sheep will escape, and any predator will have to go through you to get to your flock.

You’re ready for it to kill you first. It’s part of the bargain. You protect your sheep, not until it gets difficult, not until it gets dangerous, but no matter what.

Imagine that responsibility! There are no days off. There’s no calling in sick, or taking a vacation, or thinking that just this once you’d like to get a decent sleep yourself. And yet you do it willingly, lovingly even, because your care for this flock is everything to you. You’ve come to cherish them all, every one.

The night is long, and cold. It’s filled with unexplained noises, cries of pain, the palpation of life and death, and more than once during this night you are afraid. You are tired and cold and the dawn seems very far away indeed.

And then it comes… just a whisper of light, a hint really, the eastern sky not quite as dark as it was. Gradually the light increases, the clouds turning searing colors of pink and purple, until the sun breaks free of the horizon and you can stand up, stretch your tight and tired muscles, and lead your flock out to the hillside again.

The world has gone from darkness to light, from fear to calm. “For all of you,” wrote St. Paul to the church at Thessalonica, “are children of the light and children of the day. We are not of the night or of darkness” (I Thess.5:5).

In his wonderful book While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks, Timothy Laniak reminds us that tsalmavet is not only an external darkness, that it can sit within us as well. St. John of the Cross was familiar with tsalmavet. So was Job. So was Jesus, in the Garden at Gethsemane. “These shadows,” writes Laniak, “come at unplanned and awkward times (…) Just when we need to show enthusiasm for a vision. Just when we thought we could enjoy the status quo. When we least expect it, the lights go out. And our faith, the only fire in the soul’s night, barely smoulders. As we remember those segments of our journey that have been covered in deep shadows, can we now see some evidence of the Shepherd’s presence? How do we respond to others who feel destabilized in a dark spiritual wilderness?” (p.173)

Can you walk in the light this Lent? Can you feel the presence of the Shepherd who watches over you, this night and every night, making sure that nothing will harm you?

Lent

Are You Hungry for God?

Why should you fast?

Oddly enough, that’s a fairly unusual question for Catholics to ask. If you Google “fasting and Catholic tradition,” most of the hits in the first few pages have to do with specific regulations. When do we have to do it? What exactly is it? Can I have bread? Do I have to fast all day? What happens if I eat something?

In other words, we focus on what we might call the minutiae of fasting, putting the cart well before the horse. Before you learn how to do something, you need to understand why you’re doing it.

One good reason is that the Scriptures call us to fast. Jesus clearly expected it of his disciples: “When you fast,” he said, “do not look gloomy like the hypocrites” (Matthew 6:16). He said “when” you fast—not “if.” The Old Testament is filled with examples of God’s people fasting, and the first thing Saint Paul did upon his conversion was—you guessed it!—fast.

And yet fasting has slipped between the cracks, as it were, of our present-day traditions.

I’d like to suggest we rethink our approach. Fasting, more than any other discipline, doesn’t let you forget for one moment what it is you’re doing. You’re hungry. You feel deprived. Your body is reminding you something is different, uncomfortable, and that discomfort enables your spirit to focus.

In a sense, fasting isn’t about food itself as much as it’s about abstinence; you could, theoretically, fast from anything you love consuming or doing; Pope Francis even has some alternate suggestions here. So why choose food? Well, have you noticed how you feel after a large meal? Sleepy, possibly uncomfortable, lethargic, distracted. Notice these are all feelings that go against the spirit of Lent, which is a spirit of penitence and prayer.

Fasting is what enables prayer: it’s an incessant reminder of our need for help… and the need for action. “When a man begins to fast,” writes St. Isaac the Syrian, “he straightway yearns in his mind to enter into converse with God.” Fasting is what sets the process in motion; it gives intentionality to our prayer. Growth and change never come from a place of comfort, and fasting keeps us uncomfortable, forcing us to think about consumption and privilege.

Fasting is an aid to open our eyes to the situation in which so many of our brothers and sisters live. In his First Letter, St. John admonishes: “If anyone has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him—how does the love of God abide in him?” Voluntary fasting enables us to grow in the spirit of the Good Samaritan, who bends low and goes to the help of his suffering brother. By freely embracing an act of self-denial for the sake of another, we make a statement that our brother or sister in need is not a stranger. (Pope Benedict)

We live in a culture of fast food, instant gratification, and self-centeredness. Fasting forces us to think intentionally about the foods we eat, the goods we consume, and the ways in which we are privileged. Fasting forces us to consider what it is like to go without.

There are many different ways to fast, and a good place to begin is by asking God for discernment: what kind of fast are you being called to this Lent? The Bible gives examples of one-day, three-day, seven-day, and forty-day fasts. But you’re not required to follow any of those: you can fast on Fridays, on Wednesdays and Fridays, or (in a modified way) every day.

So what do you do instead of eating? Use the energy of fasting. That may sound counterintuitive: it’s food that gives our bodies energy, so how can we be energized by fasting? Yet time and time again, in various religious traditions, people report that fasting brings them clarity of mind. An experiment at the University of Chicago showed an increase in mental alertness and better schoolwork performance when participants were fasting. So take advantage of that clarity and focus to open yourself up to new ways of being with God.

  • You spent time preparing and consuming the meals you’re giving up. Use the gift of time that the discipline has given you in spiritually constructive ways. You might want to spend that time in Eucharistic Adoration or other prayer; in reading Scripture; in organizing a Lenten discussion group.
  • You also spent money on the food you’re not consuming anymore. That money could well be spent this Lent on people less fortunate than you: donating it to a local food bank or soup kitchen will help you address the needs of those for whom fasting is not optional, for whom the feeling of hunger is all too familiar.

And, honestly, what better way to understand those who are hungry than by… going hungry?

 
text by Jeannette de Beauvoir, whose greatest joy is working in the Media Department of Pauline Books & Media
image by Jonathan Pielmay for Unspash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advent, Everyday Grace

Everyday Grace:How to Wait During Advent

We’ve all spent a significant amount of our time waiting. Waiting for an appointment, waiting for a kid to come home, waiting for an overdue airplane, waiting our turn at the grocery store. No one likes waiting; its very definition is postponement. Postponement of joy, of relief, of getting things done. So why does the Church give us Advent? Why assign a whole season just to waiting? Why not go directly to Christmas?

I’d like to suggest that things happen in the waiting. Waiting is liminal time, time spent between one thing and another, and that is often where the magic happens. Advent makes sure we’re ready for Christmas.

  • Advent waiting is finite. We wait for love and marriage without knowing if it will come. We wait for justice. We wait for healing. The hardest thing about waiting is not knowing when it’s going to end, or even if it’s going to end. The waiting that comes with Advent is fun because it’s finite. We know what’s coming at the end of our wait will be good, and we know exactly how many days we have left to wait for it. You can find stress in waiting, or you can find joy in knowing how and when it will end.
  • Advent waiting is preparatory. We make space for special things—Christmas trees, holiday foods, hidden presents. But we also have to make space inside ourselves, open ourselves to the Child on his way. Our hearts are his home, so they must be prepared.
  • Advent waiting is hopeful. As this part of the world moves deeper into winter, the shortened days and longer nights can feel dark. But there is a Light that shines in darkness: the one who loves, redeems, and heals the world is on his way. We, and our whole community of faith, are the people of hope. Let’s live it fully!

Hold your breath: it is almost here. The waiting is nearly over.

Advent, Christmas, Listening to the Heart

What if I can’t “rest merry”?

In the shops, it’s all “God rest ye merry, gentlemen,” but every time Margaret hears the words, she wants to cry. She’s going about her everyday Advent errands, dutifully buying gifts and wrapping paper and cards; but, “I feel like there’s a barrier between me and everybody else,” she says. “Like I’m seeing them through some kind of blurry lens.” The reason for that distance? “My husband died in September,” Margaret replies. “I just can’t synch up. I feel sad in the middle of so many people being happy. When I do forget for a moment, when I feel even the smallest joy, I immediately feel guilty for not thinking about Daniel.”

Margaret’s story isn’t unique. No matter when we lose people we love, the first Christmas without them is bound to be painful. And that pain isn’t reserved for death: the sadness of the breakup of a relationship, the loss of a job, missing a faraway friend, fearing for a loved one in the throes of a major illness or addiction… the list goes on and on, for there are myriad events and situations that leave us feeling grief-stricken and therefore inadequate at Christmastime.

My childhood Christmases were shadowed by a death in my own family. When I was two years old, my sister Adele was born with hydrocephalus, a condition that has effective treatments today but very few then. She was born in October and died a few days before Christmas, and my mother never fully grieved—or recovered. All through my growing-up years, she sat and watched the rest of us trim the tree, never joining in because it made her so sad. I understand the depth of her pain, but I think she never really understood what its expression did to the rest of us.

I can’t think that God wanted our Christmases to be dismal, or for Margaret’s to be guilt-ridden. But how else can you cope with overwhelming grief when the world tells you to be merry?

If you Google words like “Catholic” and “grief” and “Christmas,” you’ll find some extremely sensible suggestions for practical ways of getting through—asking others for help, honoring missing loved ones, taking time for oneself. If you are grieving this year, I urge you to read them—especially, perhaps, these 64 tips. But the reality is that nearly all these approaches are strategic in nature, offering guidelines for how to manage grief during the holidays. And of course that’s necessary: we all need ways of coping with the various feelings, situations, people, and memories that can exacerbate sorrow during Advent and Christmas.

But the real need is for something beyond coping strategies. As many people who have moved through grief and sadness have learned, one great comfort is in storytelling; grief loves stories, because it is resistant to logic and linear thinking, but wraps itself lovingly around a narrative. It’s why we take comfort in telling stories about those we have lost.

Advent and Christmas are just filled with holy narratives. What can they tell us about handling grief?

The first thing they say is we’re not alone. In the most difficult places on our path, spaces of sanctuary are waiting for us. Pregnant, unmarried, and alone, Mary is in a perilous state after Gabriel departs; she has said the most luminous and yet most perilous “yes” that humankind can say. What does she do next? She goes in search of someone who can help. She goes to her cousin Elizabeth, who welcomes Mary and offers her safety, blessing, and sanctuary (Luke 1:39-45). Where are places—and people—who represent sanctuary in your life? Can you turn to them now?

The second thing we learn from the Scripture story is to open ourselves to the unexpected. Joseph was in terrible grief when he learned of Mary’s pregnancy. His whole future was shattered. Not only marriage but divorce was now in his path. He must have felt sick at heart, numb, empty. And what happens? Joseph falls asleep and God speaks to him in his dream (Matthew 1:20-21; 2:13, 19-20, 22). When God wants to convey something to us, he frequently uses unexpected methods: dreams, stories, metaphors, intuition, poetry, art. God often manifests in our peripheral vision. Are there places where you might be able to discern him now?

Finally, Scripture tells us that incarnation begins in darkness. The country was occupied and its people enslaved, and this is where God chose to be born. God comes to us in the darkness that Advent begins to pierce, and promises we shall see a great light. When we are in pain and grief, when our world has come undone, when we cannot see the next step on the path, that is precisely where God meets us. His first priority is not to do away with the dark—but to be present to us in it. Comfort my people, Isaiah cries, and “I will give you treasures of darkness” (Isaiah 45:3). Can you look for God’s presence, not beyond your pain, but within it?

This is not the end of God’s story, and it isn’t the end of your story, either. The way you feel this Advent and Christmas is not the way you will always feel. As difficult as it is to imagine in these painful moments, there will be holidays when lightness returns to you. There will be holidays when you can celebrate with memory rather than grief.

But in the meantime, take God’s Word to heart. You are not alone. Stay open to the unexpected. Sit with God in the darkness. Christmas is coming.

by Jeannette de Beauvoir

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advent

Another Way to See the World

I remember very clearly the afternoon when we received word that the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris was on fire. I was living in our convent in St. Louis and one of the other sisters in formation pulled up the images on the computer. We all sat there for a few minutes in silence, absolutely in dumbfounded by what was happening. I remember praying over and over again, “Lord, have mercy.”

As the hours went on, we received the news that the Blessed Sacrament had been rescued. No one had died. And yet, we all felt heartbroken knowing that the church had been so mangled in the fire. Inside myself, I was confused. Why was I so upset about a building? 

In reality, this is because Notre-Dame is not just a building. Throughout the centuries, countless people have come to that place to have an encounter with the living God. The beauty of the art and architecture was designed expressly and was successful in pointing to God’s loving providence. In a country that struggles so much to hold on to faith, the towering church is a symbol that God remains. It is so much more than a building.

As I began to think, I realized that Notre-Dame was not the only thing in my life that was more than what appeared on the surface. Each morning, I open my Bible, which some people might consider to be just another book. But my Bible is more than just another book; it is the living Word of God that speaks to me on a daily basis. When I walk into church, I genuflect to the tabernacle and spend time in prayer there because the Eucharist is not just bread but the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. When I touch my Rosary in my pocket, I am not just touching beads on a string but am reminded of the Blessed Mother’s constant loving protection and moved to trust what God is doing in that moment.

This is a concept that actually gets to the core of how Catholics see the world. This is called a “sacramental worldview” and it is what allows us to see the physical world, those things that we can see and feel and touch in this life, in a way that points to God. It is a sacramental worldview that leads us to see the glory of God in a sunset or to be in awe at the beauty of a newborn baby. It is the understanding that allows us to appreciate this life and material things for the good that they truly are while also recognizing that this is not our ultimate homeland.

Right now, we are getting ready for the season of preparation for the key to understanding what it means to have a sacramental worldview: the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, God himself became one of us. He entered into our material world in a real way, not through symbols, not simply by appearing to us, but by actually becoming human. In Jesus Christ, God could breathe and eat and cry and even be killed. Because he entered into our physical reality in such an intimate way, he was able to save us from the inside as one of us so that we would be able to have his own life within us. “And the soul felt its worth.”

These next few weeks are going to be busy and intense for all of us. With long lines at shopping malls, Christmas songs on the radio, and endless parties and events, God is extending an invitation to us to see more than what is on the surface. He is asking us to allow these things to penetrate our hearts so that it is not just another run to the store, another version of “Silent Night,” or another batch of cookies that we bake with loved ones. No, to you and to me, he is saying, “Let me use these things to show you how much I love you.”

This is how we see the world in a sacramental way. Although we live in the world, it is a vastly different way of seeing it than most people today. This allows us to live in such a way that everything leads us to God because we are aware that everything in this life is a gift from him, a sign of his love for us. And this can even go one step further: you can become a sacrament for others. You can be an instrument, a person created and beloved by God, through whom he makes his love known in this world during this crazy season. Let each decoration that you put up, each present that you wrap, each minute that you wait in line, and each Christmas card you write become a channel for God’s grace in this season. That’s certainly a different way of seeing the world.

Truly, God did not become incarnate only in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, but takes on flesh in each of us every time we are open to receiving his love. The more we are aware of how he is using the material things in our lives to reveal his love to us, the more we are able to use these material things to show that love to others. As you go about your day, you can ask God, “How is it that you are showing me that you love me today?” You may be surprised by just how many love notes he sends you.

 

by Sr. Cecilia Cicone, novice