The Parable of the Seeds

In Mark 4:26-32, Jesus tells a parable about seeds. I’ve been thinking a lot about seeds lately. Though I’ve accumulated a decent amount of experience growing flowers and herbs, and nurturing many indoor and outdoor members of the plant kingdom, this is the first year that I’ve decided to grow a small food garden. Living in a northern climate zone, I elected to start my Alpine strawberry seeds indoors, as strawberry seeds can take up to 28 days to germinate — even the average is around 14 days — and then it’s a while afterward to mature fruit. Naturally, I wanted to get a head start on their growth before transplanting the baby plants outside.

With great excitement I poured my potting mix into the container, sprinkled the tiny seeds of Fragaria vesca upon the soil, set them in a sunny window, kept them moist, and checked on them about a hundred times a day … day after day. I fooled myself on day 4 when I thought a sprout was forming. It wasn’t. As the calendar passed 14 days with no sprouts in sight, excitement gradually gave way to a creeping, burgeoning doubt.

Jesus compares the “kingdom of God” to seeds upon the ground:

The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how. The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come (Mk 4:26-29).

Jesus often speaks of the kingdom of God (alternately the kingdom of heaven) in terms that evoke a state of being or express a certain quality. He tells the people that “the kingdom of God is within you,” and “the kingdom of God is in your midst.” I’m particularly drawn to Jesus’ frequent use of parables to express the character of the kingdom of God. This parable of the seeds is one of them. He wants us to know that God’s kingdom is like a seed. Like a seed, it acts quietly, often unobtrusively, and even in fragility — but steadily. It comes to fruition over time, time that we do not control, often unfolding out of sight and through hidden workings not always completely understood.

The seed starts small, even tiny, and through some miracle of sunlight and water and nutrients of the soil and its own internal essence, it breaks through the shell that holds it and emerges as a tiny shoot. That tiny shoot, if the sunlight and the water and the nutrients of the soil are there for it to work with, grows stronger and larger and establishes a firm root. And after some time, the thing that started as a tiny seed has grown into a fruit or a vegetable or a flower or even a tree. And if the conditions are right, it will spread.

And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (Mk 4:30-32).

After 20 days had passed, excitement was long gone and despair was at the door. I had about given up any expectation that my little Fragaria vesca would sprout. Dreams of happy, thriving plants offering bright little strawberries bursting with flavor had faded. Not a single seed out of twenty-seven had come forth by day 20.

The morning of the next day, a faint hope still present in my gardener’s heart, I looked over the seeds. Still nothing. I went about my day, this time giving little thought to checking them any further as the hours went by. Evening came, and I went to the window to pull the curtain. More out of habit than anything else at that point, I leaned over to give the seeds a quick glance, expecting nothing.

And there it was. A pale, thin shoot, extending out from its protective shell, finding its way into the earth that would nourish its life. On day 21, the first seed had sprouted. It was also the first day of spring. In my delight, I let loose a scream of surprised elation.

The kingdom of God is like that.

One day after sprouting
Two days after sprouting

Copyright ©️2022 Elizabeth Keck

The Rhythm of the Hours

Glenstal Book of Prayer

A popular, pared-down version of the Liturgy of the Hours, very good for busy laypeople. Saint Nicholas graces the cover.

Recently, my husband and I went on a weekend retreat to a Benedictine abbey a mere 23 minutes from our home. It was an undirected retreat, meaning that our time was ours to structure as we saw fit. We went on a lot of very peaceful and renewing walks, spent time in the chapels, had a nap or two, did some reading and talking, and enjoyed partaking of the meals that the monks kindly provided for us in the guest dining room. We enjoyed their friendly warmth and good humor, too. The Benedictine order sees hospitality to all comers as central to its mission, taking its cue from the fifth-century Rule of Saint Benedict, which states that “guests are never lacking in a monastery.” According to the Rule, the monks or nuns consider that they are hosting Christ when they host their guests.

But probably the most surprising thing that happened during our retreat was how endeared we both became to the Liturgy of the Hours (also called the Divine Office or Breviary). Before that weekend, we had basically zero experience of the Hours, even though the Hours are a form of Christian prayer that is emphatically not reserved just to clergy or consecrated religious — though these folks have become most often associated with it. But laypeople are also encouraged to pray the Hours, in private and to whatever extent they are able in the circumstances of their days.

What are they? Well, the Hours are organized prayers that consist largely of psalms, juxtaposed with other prayers that have come down to us over the centuries from the early tradition of the Church. The Liturgy of the Hours is observed (under varying names) by the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglican, and sometimes Lutheran traditions. The full Liturgy contains 7 daily prayer times, each ranging in length but none exceeding 20 minutes or so; several of them are a good deal less. As a layperson, you can choose to do one or all of them. Each day has different psalms and prayers — variety is the spice of life, after all. Two of the daily prayer times are singled out as the most important of the day. These are the morning and evening prayers, also referred to as lauds and vespers, and are considered the “major” hours; they represent praise and thanksgiving. There are other, shorter prayer times for the mid-morning, noon, and mid-afternoon (terce, sext, and nones); these are known as the “minor” hours. Finally before bed, there is night prayer, called compline. Perhaps the Liturgy of the Hours, in concept, is similar to the well-known Muslim practice of prayer five times a day. Pope Francis has said that he “loves praying the breviary” each day.

So what did my husband and I find so special about these prayers that I am sitting here at the end of a busy day, gushing about them on the internet? I’ll try to explain. When we were staying at the abbey, a large old-fashioned bell would ring precisely ten minutes before each of the Hours that that community observed (they didn’t observe the minor hours of terce and nones, or at least not all together in the church; they may have done so individually on their own time). Hearing that bell and going to the sacred space of prayer time — literally and metaphorically — became such a steady, gentle rhythm in our short time there that it was the thing we missed the most when we left. We didn’t plan for that, either. When we arrived, we figured maybe we’d go to a couple of prayer times. But after the first one, we just kept on coming back like we couldn’t get enough. When we first arrived, one of the other visitors said to us, “There’s a rhythm to the life here. It really grows on you.” It didn’t take very long for us to understand what she meant. There is a refuge in the prayers, a gentle communion with the divine that keeps you wanting more.

And now, here in our home? After a few weeks without the Liturgy of the Hours, we picked up over the weekend a copy of The Glenstal Book of Prayer: A Benedictine Prayer Book. This wonderful little book out of Glenstal Abbey in Ireland became a bestseller, and is now the source for our simplified Liturgy of the Hours in our lives. My husband can do one or two of the Hours each day, usually vespers and/or compline; due to my more flexible schedule I can do more on most days if I choose. The point is that these prayers are not a requirement or some obligation: they are a great and marvelous opportunity to be entered into freely. As the Glenstal Book of Prayer says in its introduction:

Prayer is the movement of the Holy Spirit in the human heart through which God reaches out and embraces human beings. It is a duet of love in which the action of the Spirit inspires and sustains us in the darkness of faith. It is an inward call from Christ who dwells within the depths of the human soul, and who longs to be known and loved there. It is the exciting adventure of the search for God’s presence and the endless joy of rejoicing in it when it is found. It is the growing perception of the infinitely gracious, infinitely merciful Source, the Father who reveals the beauty of his face to the inner eye of the heart and the sweetness of his voice to the inner ear attuned to listen.

© 2014 Elizabeth Keck

Thoughts on Palm Sunday

This photo shows the palm fronds we received when we went to church for Palm Sunday this morning (the two braided ones didn’t come to us that way — they represent my husband’s creativity). When we arrived at Mass, I thought I came prepared for the emotional haul of the reading of Jesus’ suffering and death, from the Gospel of Matthew. But when the reader began and the Palm Sunday drummer commenced his soft, steady drumbeat in the background, it seemed to me that perhaps no one who takes these events seriously can ever be completely prepared for their emotional impact. They are too shocking, too terrible, for complacency.

Our palm fronds

Our palm fronds

As the cast of readers made their way through word after painful word of the narrative, a few things surfaced in my mind as I listened and read along. The first thing that surfaced was a rueful thought along the lines of: “Well isn’t this just like the human species? God sends a part of Godself to become God’s divine Son, to teach us what the kingdom of God is like, and to provide for us the perfect model of how to be holy and to realize that kingdom within and amongst ourselves, and what do we do? We murder him.” And is that any surprise? The human species is often violent, short-sighted, and susceptible to mob mentality. At any given time there is a war going on somewhere, and the 20th century was the most horrifically violent century in the history of our species (think two World Wars, scores of other wars, and multiple genocides, all carried out with unprecedented destruction due to new technology).

The next thought surfaced for me at the point in the narrative when Jesus goes outside to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper, when he knew that his betrayer was about to arrive with the authorities and an angry mob to haul him away to torture and a gruesome death. As I listened to and read the account of Jesus in the Garden, I thought about how clear the Gospels are about the fact that Jesus had ample time to flee if he had chosen to do so. The Gospels describe an agonizing scene that drags on for hours on that night that we would come to venerate for the next 2,000 years (and counting) as Holy Thursday. Half the night goes by while Jesus prays in the Garden, and waits, and waits, and waits. The Gospels are clear: he knew what was coming, and he asked his disciples to wait and pray with him. He was anguished, yet he did not flee. In those days, all a successful escape would have entailed would be a quick dash out of the city and a few days of walking, and voilà — a new life in safety. But instead, he waited for them to come; and when a disciple tried to prevent the arrest by drawing his sword and cutting off the ear of one of the soldiers, Jesus himself stopped the disciple and told him to put away his sword.

No, this was a sacrificial death to which Jesus went without defending himself, a divine act born from divine sacrificial love. As he said of the broken bread at the Last Supper: “Take and eat; this is my body.” And as he said of the wine in the cup: “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the Covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28). As he hung dying on the cross, malicious observers mocked that he saved others but does not save himself. Saving himself was not part of the plan. Indeed, that’s what’s so astonishing, because neither the disciples nor anyone else were expecting a suffering and dying Messiah, and certainly not one who would die the most disgraceful and ghastly death of the Roman cross. If you want a prime example of “you can’t make this up,” this is it. Nobody wanted to make this one up.

The good news, of course, is that Jesus’ death wasn’t the end of the story. Nobody was expecting the Resurrection either, even though the Gospels have Jesus hinting at it while he was still alive, trying to prepare the disciples for it. But nobody understood it. It was not yet in anyone’s vocabulary. And when he died, the disciples were utterly destroyed emotionally. The Gospels paint the bleak picture of it: their hope was snuffed out. They believed it was over, as anyone would. They didn’t expect that Jesus would be resurrected. So on the third day, Easter Sunday, nobody was more surprised than the disciples when the man they thought dead and lost forever was no longer a dead body, but rather started appearing to them in a kind of transfigured but definite physical state. First in ones and twos (and first among these were the women who had come to the tomb), then to large and disparate groups of his followers. Reading the Gospels’ account of it, you can feel their amazement lifting off the page and coming right at you. And later when they would face rejection, and even arrest, torture, and execution unless they recanted this story, they would not recant. Many of them (the most famous being Peter and Paul) went straight to their early deaths proclaiming this Resurrection.

But Easter Sunday is still a week away. We are just now entering Holy Week, and this week holds much to reflect on before we get to the joy of Easter and the fifty days of the Easter season. Today after the reading of Jesus’ suffering and death, our priest said that Jesus wants our union with him more than he wants our sympathy. Just so. As the pastor wrote in the church bulletin for this week, Holy Week is the time when Jesus’ followers “celebrate these sacred and ancient liturgies of the church. Easter Sunday and the fifty days of Easter will have so much more meaning for us if we take the time to remember the love that Jesus poured out for us on the cross.”

© 2014 Elizabeth Keck

The Open Tabernacle

The Tabernacle at Our Church

The Tabernacle at Our Church

This photo is of the Tabernacle that is in our church. Every Catholic church has one of these, although they don’t all look the same. The Tabernacle is the place where the consecrated Eucharist, also called the Host, resides. The Hosts in the Tabernacle are those that were not received during the last Mass and have not yet been taken out for the next Mass. There is never a time (other than the Liturgy of the Eucharist during Mass) when the Tabernacle is empty. Because it is Catholic faith that the Presence of Christ inheres in the Eucharist in a real way, in every Catholic church there is a perpetual flame burning beside the Tabernacle, an ever-present witness that in this place dwells the Presence of the Lord. The word “Tabernacle” comes from the Old Testament: it was the structure in which God’s Presence was understood to dwell in a special way in ancient Israel. Each day — depending on the individual church, it could be all day or a certain time of the day — Catholic churches are open so that anyone can come in and pray or meditate in silence before the Tabernacle, in Christ’s Presence.

I mentioned that the only time the Tabernacle is empty is during the Mass’s Eucharistic Liturgy, when its doors are opened and the Body of Christ within is distributed to all present, along with the newly-consecrated Hosts. Last Sunday after receiving Communion, we returned to our pew as usual to kneel in interior prayer and close our eyes, to be in communion with Christ. When I opened my eyes, the final people were going up for Communion, and my gaze happened to land on the Tabernacle (we tend to sit close to it). Its doors were still open, since Communion was still being distributed, and as I looked at it I reflected on what those open doors mean.

Those open doors signify a God who revealed Godself to us through a self-limiting act: becoming incarnate as a human, to be carried and borne by a human mother, to experience human bodily needs and suffering. God did this in an act of supreme humility, of self-emptying (kenosis), of solidarity in suffering and in joy, and of service to us. As Pope Francis is fond of saying, Christianity is not primarily a system of ethics, although the ethical treatment of others, especially the most weak and vulnerable, obviously flows from what Jesus taught. Pope Francis frequently and rightly reminds us that Christianity is primarily a living relationship with a person — divine yet human — who suffered, died, and rose from the dead to teach us that death is not the end of life, only its changing. This person, Jesus, taught us to orient ourselves to “the kingdom of God,” which he alternately described as being “within you,” or “like a treasure buried in a field,” or “like a pearl of great price,” or “like seeds that a farmer scattered” that land on three different types of ground (rocky, thorny, and fertile), or “like a mustard seed,” the smallest of seeds, which grows into a full-bodied tree. Jesus came to show us what the kingdom of God is.

The picture that God reveals of Godself in Christ is a picture of self-denial, self-gift, service, infinite mercy, and infinite love. After all, God demonstrates what God is calling us to. The Tabernacle’s open doors last Sunday spoke to me about Jesus’ eternal self-gift through Communion, which he inaugurated when he distributed the bread and wine, pronounced them his Body and Blood “given for you,” and said to “do this in memory of me.” The Tabernacle’s open doors signal that even today, 2,000 years later, Christ is still distributing his Body in a mystical way that never ends, and in which we are invited to take part. Yet a final thing the open Tabernacle made me think of was the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, which the Gospels describe as Jesus’ feeding thousands of people from scarcity. The food, to the crowd’s astonishment, just kept on coming, and Jesus just kept on distributing it. The open Tabernacle reminds me of that event because that event (like the open Tabernacle) is connected to the endless distribution of Christ’s self in Communion. Like the day with the loaves and fishes, Christ keeps on giving food to us — but as the open Tabernacle will always remind us, the food that he gives now is Himself.

© 2014 Elizabeth Keck

“May God Grant You Pardon and Peace”

This year my daughter is preparing for her First Communion at our Catholic church. Before taking part in the Eucharist, though, she has just celebrated her first Reconciliation, or confession. Naturally, my husband, daughter, and I have spent a lot of time the last few months talking about this sacrament, so now feels like the perfect time to put forth a few reflections on what I think it all means.

In Catholic theology, each sacrament constitutes a genuine — not merely a symbolic — encounter with Christ through the Holy Spirit. As such, the sacraments are believed to impart real divine grace within the person who is participating (provided he or she is doing so with a “willing disposition,” which basically means free will and a heart open to receiving God’s grace). It isn’t magic or some kind of hocus-pocus. The theology is that if the person is internally disposed to cooperate with God’s grace — because God doesn’t force Godself upon us — then the grace received will take root and grow within that person. If that grace continues to be nourished with prayer and action, its positive effects on the person will become more and more clear to that person and the outside world.

So I’m beginning to put myself to sleep with all this theologizing. The real question is, does it work? As the saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating of it. Well, in my experience it does work. But I can also say without fear of exaggeration that after my daughter took part in Reconciliation, I noticed a genuine difference in her that lasted for about a week afterward. I’d like to call it a grace bump, if that doesn’t sound too silly. She’s a kind, good girl to begin with, but still I noticed a consistently better attitude from her, more patience, more cooperation. There was a positive effect.

So what about this sacrament in particular? It’s relatively easy to see how partaking in the Eucharist could bring one into encounter with Christ. But with Reconciliation, we don’t take the Body of Christ into ourselves. Instead, we meet in particular with Christ as Shepherd. My daughter’s religious education program emphasized for the kids how Jesus is always their shepherd, who is willing to walk about the entire pasture to find them and to make them safe with him. They also emphasized the story of the prodigal son. In this story, the human father who unconditionally welcomes back his contrite son stands for God the Creator who waits to welcome us back with open arms as soon as we turn to meet him.

But since God’s forgiveness of sins isn’t conditioned on the sacrament of confession (especially where common everyday sins are concerned), why do we go? To put it simply, we go because it feels good. Even my daughter, with only seven little years under her belt, understood and experienced that with her first participation. It feels good because we are unburdening the weight of our negative thoughts and actions; we are surrendering them to God through Christ and then hearing the priest’s advice and assurance of God’s forgiveness.

This is spiritually and psychologically cleansing. In fact, it’s downright liberating. It’s peace-inducing in a major way, because you know that you’ve just taken ownership of your shortcomings, with no denial or excuses. You’ve simply admitted it: yep, I could have done better for others, I could have thought better of others, and hearing of God’s forgiveness sure makes me feel good right now.

According to the New Testament, Jesus gave his apostles the ability to absolve sins — to pronounce them forgiven on Jesus’ behalf. He said that “the sins you release are released, and the sins you retain are retained.” I used to wonder why he specified this. Then I thought of a couple of answers a little while ago. I can’t claim they’re the answers, but to me at least, they make sense. So here’s the first one. Sometimes we can tell someone we’re sorry, but they might not want to forgive. That’s between them and God, but what Reconciliation does is release the contrite person from the sin he or she is genuinely sorry for — whether or not the other person is willing to release them. Christ has released them.

There are other occasions, too — times when it’s impractical to ask the other person for forgiveness. For example, maybe I wasn’t having my finest hour one day, and I indulged some uncharitable thoughts about someone. Maybe I even muttered some nasty things about them privately. Sure, I felt like they were making me irritated, but it isn’t as if they ran over my dog and then laughed about it. I probably could have entertained fewer nasty or judgmental thoughts if I’d really wanted to. In such a situation, it isn’t really practical to walk up to someone and announce, “Hi, I just wanted you to know that yesterday I was thinking that you’re a real jerk, but I’m sorry about that so please forgive me.” It’s safe to say that would fall into the category of making things worse rather than better. Best to save it for the Reconciliation Room, if you ask me.

To pronounce the Lord’s “release”, the priest, acting in his capacity as Christ’s minister, repeats the words of absolution that millions of people have heard, and will continue to hear, across the globe, day in and day out, in dozens of different languages:

God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Amen!

Copyright © 2014 Elizabeth Keck

I Don’t Have to Like You to Love You (and You Don’t Have to Like Me to Love Me Either)

Yes, it’s a truism that we can love someone without liking them. Usually when we hear of this happening, it’s a case within families. Someone has a family member — spouse, sibling, parent, whoever — who’s put them through hell, and it’s hard to muster up a cozy affection for this person. Or it’s an old friend that’s just gotten a little hard to like lately. Yet you love these people anyway, because you just do. It’s a given. You want what’s best for them, even if they’re not your first pick when you think about going for that nice nature walk in the woods.

But there is a whole other dimension, too, in which this can happen. At our Catholic parish, we’re fortunate enough to have two grace-filled, down-to-earth, insightful priests. One of them gave his homily this Sunday on what it means to love in the way that Christ taught. He mentioned that St. Thomas Aquinas defined this kind of love as being rooted in the will, not just (or not so much) the emotions. Then he went on to clarify that this kind of love, simply put, wants what is best for the other person.

It seems to me that one obvious way to see this is to realize that loving another person in Christ-love doesn’t require believing that they’re a great person or even a good person, especially when it’s quite clear that they’re not. It doesn’t require “feeling” the same kind of affection we feel for our spouse when we’re in a happy marriage, or for a family member with whom we get along swimmingly. What Christ-love requires is that we recognize the other person as another child of God, whom God loves, and that we therefore want what is good for them. This is a liberating realization, and it’s one that can be applied to everyone — not just to the person we already know we love, but also to the colleague or co-worker or neighbor who makes life difficult.

And most significant of all from the perspective of Jesus’ teaching to “love your enemy”: we can apply this understanding of love even to people who commit the worst kinds of sins, without ever thinking that loving them in this way implies any kind of validation, justification, or understanding of what they’ve done. When St. Paul said, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” this is what he meant. He didn’t mean that by loving the sinner, they’re your natural go-to person for dinner and a movie (and yes, I know they didn’t have movies in the first century A.D.). He meant that you don’t want evil to befall them; you don’t want vengeance; you don’t want them to suffer for the sake of it; you can feel compassion for them. You want what’s best for them despite their actions, because you know that this is the love of Christ and you cannot wish against it. What’s best for them doesn’t mean they should never have to face up to their sins, and just go blithely along through life getting whatever they want — in fact, that’s very far from what is best for them. What is best for them is whatever God thinks is best for them, and that’s not for us to know. But it is for us to want, and if we can, to pray for.

This concept of love isn’t limited to Christianity, of course. I think immediately of Buddhism with its central teaching on compassion for everyone and everything, including one’s own enemy. It has been scientifically proven that Buddhist monks meditating on compassion, while their brains are monitored with a PET scan, register the highest levels of happiness that we’ve been able to record. Not long ago, I read a book by the Dalai Lama in which he explicated many Buddhist teachings, including the teaching to cultivate universal compassion. Acknowledging that jumping immediately to universal compassion is an impossibly tall order, the Dalai Lama said it must be approached in small steps if one is to achieve it. These small steps include first imagining something or someone for whom it’s quite easy to have compassion: a young child, for example, or an injured bird. When imagining this category, it shouldn’t take long for a feeling of compassion to arise. We can then continue on gradually and over time, in small steps, to imagine other, less sympathetic entities: a person whom we find irritating, for example. Meditating on compassion for that person then opens us up even more to the next level, and so on and so forth, until eventually we find ourselves capable of having compassion (and therefore love) on a universal level. Compassion is the door to love.

You don’t have to like someone in order to love them in the way that Christ taught. Practicing love in this way might or might not change another person; but it will, without a doubt, change the one who loves. We too can be like those Buddhist monks who experience the highest levels of happiness on the planet.

© 2013 Elizabeth Keck

 

 

Shared Suffering

This is a post about suffering, and the suffering of God with his creatures. One of the most radical things about Christianity is its central belief that God didn’t choose to make the Messiah a glorious political leader, but to make him God’s own incarnated Logos — which in Greek signifies Word, Mind, Logic, Reason. Even more radical than this is the belief that in joining himself to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, God took upon himself all of the human condition. Not just love, laughter, and all the good stuff; he took suffering, pain, heartache, betrayal, abandonment, grief, and the weight of all the sin of humankind as expressed through the torture and gruesome murder of a Roman crucifixion. His purpose wasn’t the establishment of a political kingdom, but the once-and-for-all reconciliation of humanity to God through forgiveness of sins and infinite mercy…and the ultimate transcendence of death through the Resurrection. Indeed, the oracles of the Suffering Servant of the Lord in the Book of Isaiah predicted a Messiah who suffers by taking upon himself the sins and guilt of us all, making reparation for us.

We don’t have a comprehensive answer to suffering. But Christians believe that we do have a God who suffered for us, and suffers with us even now. That fact doesn’t solve the problem. But it does situate suffering inside a circle of meaning, which helps to provide us with some strength and the comfort of God’s solidarity with us. Anyone who suffers anything that Christ suffered — violence, grief, cruelty, humiliation, fear, sadness, and all the rest of it — can know that their suffering isn’t done alone, for God suffers with them in love and companionship. He shares our suffering — just as when we suffer, we share in the sufferings of Christ. And we know that even though Christ suffered, his suffering gave way to the Resurrection, which meant that suffering didn’t have the final word. That is God’s promise to us.

The Pietà, one of Michelangelo’s most famous sculptures, is a marble picture of suffering.

Michelangelo's Pietà

Michelangelo’s Pietà

Saint Mary the Blessed Mother cradles her recently scourged, abused, pierced, and murdered Son. We don’t know how much she knew about what was going to happen afterward; we don’t know if she had any sense of his upcoming victory in the Resurrection and Ascension to God. It seems unlikely, given the intense surprise and confusion of Jesus’ disciples over the Resurrection. But all we know is that her suffering at this moment must have been unimaginable. Parents suffer along with their children at even minor problems and injustices. Here Mary suffers the worst pain a parent can ever suffer: living through the death of their child. And, it can be argued, the worst kind of death: death that involved intense pain and abuse before it finally claimed the body that had been pushed to its limit. She, too, knows suffering. And she, too, wants us to know that suffering is not the end, just as it was not the end for her or for her Son. Here is an excerpt from the fourth and final oracle of the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah, which Christians believe foretells Jesus:

“He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, knowing pain/ Like one from whom you turn your face, spurned, and we held him in no esteem./ Yet it was our pain that he bore, our sufferings he endured,/ We thought of him as stricken, struck down by God and afflicted,/ But he was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity,/ He bore the punishment that makes us whole, by his wounds we are healed./ We had all gone astray like sheep, all following our own way;/ But the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all./…Because of his anguish he shall see the light; because of his knowledge he shall be content;/ My servant, the just one, shall justify the many, their iniquity he shall bear./ Therefore I will give him his portion among the many, and he shall divide the spoils with the mighty,/ Because he surrendered himself to death, was counted among the transgressors,/ Bore the sins of many, and interceded for the transgressors.” (Isaiah 53:3-6, 11-12)

It turned out, according to Christian faith, that this Servant who suffered for us and with us was none other than a Messiah who embodied both full God and full humanity in one Person. Suffering will exist as long as this world endures. But as long as it does, we can look to the Cross of the Suffering Servant and know that even though we don’t have all the answers, our suffering is shared. And then we can look at Jesus’ empty tomb and know that suffering doesn’t have the final word.

© 2013 Elizabeth Keck

 

Lessons from a Not-Too-Perfect Lenten Fast

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, a day when millions of people from the world’s major Christian traditions receive an ash cross on their foreheads. The ash cross symbolizes repentance and humble recognition of our weakness, faults, and ultimate dependence on God, even for our very existence. When I received my cross, the lay minister who marked it upon me spoke the formula: “Turn away from sin, and believe in the Gospel.” I appreciated that “turn away from sin” was chosen instead of “repent,” which in American society carries more than a twinge of unfortunate Puritan baggage. A disconcerting mental reel of Jonathan Edwards banging his Bible and screaming “Repent!” is not particularly edifying (or spiritually productive). “Turn away” — which is really just a less archaic equivalent of “repent” — is also an exact modern English translation of the biblical Hebrew verb shuv, which is the most common Old Testament way to refer to the action of repentance.

But there is more to Ash Wednesday than ashes. It’s also a day of fasting and abstinence for some Christian traditions. In Catholicism, fasting is defined as an able-bodied adult taking only one full meal, plus two smaller snack-like quantities in the rest of the day, “sufficient to maintain strength.” Beverages are not excluded. Abstinence is defined as abstaining from meat, and Ash Wednesday combines both abstinence and fasting. The purpose of this is multilayered: (1) Our fast is meant to be a sacrifice, our offering to God, on a day that especially acknowledges our faults and our gratitude for God’s love; (2) The practice of self-denial helps to teach us detachment from (over)consumption; (3) Fasting teaches discipline but also bring us closer to God, since prayer makes fasting more tolerable; (4) Voluntary fasting gives us a taste of the involuntary hunger that millions of our fellow humans suffer, and should lead to our almsgiving out of responsibility to them, as well as a heightened sense of gratitude within those of us who have enough.

I began the day determined to carry out the fast and abstinence without blemish. I decided to schedule my one full meal for dinner. Now, I was doing pretty well with the fasting until about 1pm, when my empty stomach told me in no uncertain terms that the small cup of Greek yogurt I’d had in the morning (my first snack) had just about given all it could. Not to be cowed, I decided to down two tall glasses of milk. That bought me about another couple of hours. By the time 2:45pm rolled around, just about all I could think about was how hungry I was. At that point, nothing could distract me from it. My second “snack” turned out to be a medium-sized bowl of Cheerios. OK, not so bad, I said to myself. I haven’t really blown it yet. Sure, maybe a bowl of Cheerios is a little on the high side, but hadn’t a small cup of yogurt been a little on the small side? They probably evened out, I reasoned. Plus, the bowl of Cheerios will definitely make it until dinner!

And it would have. The only problem was that I couldn’t eat dinner — my one full meal — at my normal time of roughly 6 or 6:30. This was because I was sitting beside an indoor pool at a local health club between 5:30 and 6:30 for my daughter’s weekly swimming lesson (as a child, she of course was not expected to undertake fasting and abstinence). By the time we got home, it was 6:55, and I was now so hungry that I would swear there were big metal claws raking against the walls of my stomach. Famished, I eagerly scanned my mind for what would make a really satisfying full meal and last until bedtime. I hit upon the answer in an instant. Of course! One of our favorite meals: penne alla pastora, a recipe that blends crumbled sautéed Italian sausage with pasta and a small amount of ricotta cheese. It would be perfect!

And it would have been. Except just as we began dinner, my little daughter piped up, “But Mommy! You’re not supposed to eat meat today.” And there you have it. Having become so hungry from the fasting (the hard part), I had utterly forgotten about the meat abstinence (the easy part). It had fled from my mind like a flock of pigeons from a running fox. And my husband, who at the time was sitting in a night-school math class dreaming of a Wendy’s burger (and abstaining from it), had not been there to remind me earlier.

After my mind’s ears stopped ringing with the silent sound of my internal primal scream, I said to myself that — lesson learned — I would simply eat the meal and shut down the metal claws that were still scraping at my stomach.

What meaning did I ultimately make from this pitiful affair? For a little while, I felt very disappointed indeed that I so badly botched what I’d decided would be a perfect fast and abstinence. But then I realized that in my blunder, I had actually hit upon the whole purpose of the thing — the whole point that Lent is supposed to bring into focus for us. Had my fast been perfect, I likely would have missed it. Yet as it happened, my not-too-perfect fast threw into sharp relief the meaning of Ash Wednesday itself. We are such limited beings; we inhabit (for now) such limited bodies; we have so many weaknesses; we are prone to make so many mistakes, even when we try valiantly not to make any; we so often fall short of what we could be; and sometimes that falling short is willful and deliberate and even flagrant, and other times it is accidental and even unconscious.

We are flawed; we are imperfect. Yet we have God’s love anyway, and God’s grace too, if we are open to receiving it and letting it make its effects within us, to working with it and letting it change for the better the kind of people we are. Does the fact that we have God’s love despite our imperfection and weakness mean that we should just give ourselves a free pass not to become better people? Give ourselves a shrug of the shoulders and a careless self-assurance that “I’m just fine the way I am”? Of course not. That would be doing both ourselves and God a disservice. If anything, recognizing the presence of God’s love and grace should make us want to forget ourselves, and forget self-interest and any self-satisfaction, and humbly grow toward the light as a flower grows toward the sun.

So I am glad my Ash Wednesday fast was not too perfect. I learned more that way. Including some experiential knowledge (rather than only intellectual knowledge) of how hard it is to be hungry. But at least I could raid my fridge afterward. There are millions who can’t, and we who are more fortunate are responsible to them. Jesus did say: “When you feed the hungry, you feed me.”

© 2013 Elizabeth Keck

The Prayer of Quiet

For the past several months, I’ve been reading a lot about a form of prayer that is variously called contemplative prayer, centering prayer, the prayer of quiet, or the prayer of the heart. There are many of you out there who also know about this prayer form. The last three terms I’ve listed above are all subsets of “contemplative prayer”; they’re not all identical because they can have some differences in method among them, but they all refer to the type of prayer in which a person sits in quiet, with eyes closed, and listens for God “at the center.” 

Rather than talking at God and assuming that real communion with God is impossible — and thus never listening for God — contemplative prayer is silent, and begins simply with letting oneself feel a pure love for God. If we begin this way, sitting in quiet, with our minds quiet and not following a thousand distractions, and open ourselves up to the love of God, we can feel that love meeting us and emerging right from our center. It grows from our center because that is where God is, waiting for us within — in the “interior castle” inside ourselves, as Teresa of Avila put it. 

This is not some complicated technique reserved for the spiritually adept. It’s open to everyone who is willing to let go — just some, not all, of the time — of the often unfulfilling practice of praying at God, and simply focus on love. Without experiencing such love of God (which Christ repeatedly told us to do), we become cut off from what God might want to do with us, and our spirits don’t have a chance of getting clear of the weeds. As others have said, God is a rich wellspring within us; we just have to go to that well and start drawing water from it.

There have been many people who have written about their experiences with this quiet form of prayer. They span from the early desert Fathers in the first few hundred years after Christ, to the Christians of the medieval period (such as St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and the anonymous English author of The Cloud of Unknowing), right up to the present day. Just in the last forty years or so, thanks to the writings of Thomas Merton, M. Basil Pennington, and Thomas Keating, this prayer form has spread again on the wind, across citizens of many different countries and across Christian denominations; it’s even practiced by some Jews and Muslims, with a slightly different orientation. 

Here is a very helpful and accessible passage on exactly what this prayer of quiet is, from Finding Grace at the Center: The Beginning of Centering Prayer. It’s a collection of simple essays by M. Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating, who helped bring fresh knowledge of this fundamental prayer to the modern population of anyone wanting to experience more fulfilling, more communing, more productive prayer:

“One: At the beginning of the prayer we take a minute or two to quiet down and then move in faith and love to God dwelling in our depths…We move in faith to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, dwelling in creative love in the depths of our being. This is the whole essence of the prayer. ‘Center all your attention and desire on Him and let this be the sole concern of your mind and heart’ (Cloud of Unknowing, ch. 3). Faith moving towards its Object in hope and love—this is the whole of the theological, the Christian life…In a movement of faith that includes hope and love, we go to the center and turn ourselves over to God in a simple “being there”…That is what St. Paul was talking about when he said, ‘We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit Himself prays for us…’ (Romans 8:26).”

What does this kind of prayer produce? Judging by my own experience (which seems to be similar to what I’ve read in the experience of others), it produces a greater love and an increased peace that had formerly been inaccessible, even unthought of. We find ourselves thinking less about ourselves and more about others. We want to increase our charity and concern to include those outside the circle of people we know very well, especially the needy, no matter who the needy may be or whether we’ve ever met them. 

We find that this feeling of new love, unlocked and watered by God, spreads out on its own accord to include others — even those we don’t know very well, and eventually even those we don’t like particularly well — and gives a measure of interior peace we didn’t have before. It’s certainly not yet a perfect peace and not yet a perfect love; if we can get to that rare point, it would be from doing this prayer for years, even a lifetime. But it’s an ongoing, unfolding, productive process. It doesn’t make us perfect; it makes us better.

© 2013 Elizabeth Keck

Loosening the Padlock on My Compassion

This year, Lent begins on February 13. During Lent, practicing Christians undertake certain disciplines to achieve spiritual purification and growth. Lent is the unavoidable annual reminder to Christians that Jesus didn’t teach us the easy, feel-good spirituality of self-fulfillment that we find all around us in pop culture. A Christian spirituality that assimilates itself to this ignores the primary commandment that Christ taught, which is that we practice unconditional love, compassion, and non-judgment. Even when it doesn’t suit us, and even when we feel we shouldn’t have to. 

Sure. Love and compassion and non-judgment are easy to say, and are frequently said; but what does it mean to practice them in a real way, in a way that doesn’t lead to all of us making hypocrites out of ourselves? This is the question we often want to steer clear of, because it requires us to step outside our self-focused worlds and our grievances and the things we feel we deserve. The hard reality is that Christ calls everyone who says they want to follow him to walk down a road that our natural instincts would prefer not to know about.  What does this road entail, that we want to avoid it so much? 

Well, it certainly doesn’t entail drawing careful demarcation lines around those who we feel deserve the love and compassion Christ is always talking about: people we already love because they are family, or people we already like because they are nice to us and give us the consideration we feel we’re entitled to. As Jesus says: “What credit is that to you? Even the sinners and tax collectors do the same.” The reality is that most of the time, we expect the divine call to love, compassion, and non-judgment to be meticulously carried out when it is we ourselves who would be on the receiving end of it. If we’re honest, we have to admit that we’re not nearly so generous when it comes to extending those things to other people — especially people who are outside our boundary of those we love and those we like. 

The next category — people who have actively wronged us or our loved ones — are even farther outside our guarded boundary. They, we righteously feel, will never be the objects of our compassion because they simply don’t deserve it. So what if Christ still expects that I release my compassion from the fenced-in area in which it dwells, and extend it not just to myself but also to them? Well, I’m not Christ. I’m not able. It’s too much to ask. I’m too angry. What they did was too unconscionable. They certainly don’t have compassion toward me, after all; they don’t give me a second thought, and if they did, it’s a nasty one. Anyone who asks me to do otherwise is naïve.

But this is, in fact, what Christ not only asks but requires of anyone who claims to follow him. His repeated instruction — not to mention his example — to “love your enemy” and not just your neighbor is an inconvenient truth at the center of all Christ said and did. Most of us give it lip service on a good day. We prefer to be on the receiving end of such a thing, not on the giving end. Even the suggestion that we have compassion (to say nothing of love!) for one who is our enemy feels like an offense to us. I believe the reason it is so difficult is that we have an inside view of our own minds, but not those of other people; so it’s far easier to see a whole person when we look at ourselves, but only a one or two dimensional person when we look at the other. 

Yet that other person is as three dimensional as I am, whether I actually see those dimensions or not. More important, I am forced to recognize the uncomfortable fact that the God who I know loves me, also loves them. And not just a little: every bit as much. Because God sees everything that went into making them who they became. Just as God sees everything that went into making me who I became. I have no privileged status because God feels their pain no less than God feels mine, and God loves them no less than God loves me. How, then, can I permit myself to hate what God loves? Before long, I can feel the heavy-duty padlock begin to loosen on that fence where my compassion and love dwell, and the one who is loosening it is God. And now I myself don’t feel so cramped up anymore. I feel freedom instead.

Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

© 2013 Elizabeth Keck