His Eye is On the Sparrow (Matthew 10:26-33)

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

This Sunday we finally move away from John’s Gospel, where we’ve been for the majority of the fifty-day Easter season and the special Sundays immediately following it, and settle back into Matthew for the majority of this Year A of the lectionary. Here, Jesus is speaking to his disciples’ fears and worries in a time and place when life was lived close to the edge, and proclaiming your faith in Christ and his message could easily lead not only to rejection but arrest, torture, and death. This is still the case today in many places in the world, as the United Nations lists Christians as the most persecuted religious group across the globe today. 

But you don’t need to be persecuted for your faith in Christ, as so many Christians now are, in order to be deeply reassured by Jesus’ message in this reading. He says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even the hairs of your heads are all counted. So do not be afraid.”

Sometimes, we can wonder where God is. Horrible things happen in the world. Sometimes horrible things happen to us or those we love. Sometimes the daily, unremarkable challenges of life simply leave us feeling worn down, or inadequate, or weak and unable. But if we are open to the small signs in our lives, the gentle whispers of life, the simple gestures of love in the world, the call of a bird and the rustling of the wind, the delicate beauty of a flower and the time it takes for the sun to rise over the horizon, we can feel God’s presence within us and around us. We can know that, as the scripture says, God was there “in the still, small voice,” the whisper of sound. 

Last night I was reading about the remarkable story of Walter Ciszek, S. J. A Jesuit priest who had been sent to minister to Byzantine/Eastern rite Catholics in Poland in the late 1930s, he was arrested by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, at some point after the Russians overran Poland in 1939. He spent eighteen years as a Soviet prisoner. Fifteen of those years he endured under a sentence of hard labor in the Siberian salt mines, living in the same gulag that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made famous with his book The Gulag Archipelago, until the U.S. government finally secured his return home. 

To lose one’s faith and connection with God in those circumstances would have been understandable — even, perhaps, expected. Instead, as he wrote about in his books With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me, his inner life of spiritual contemplation with God became his only constant and the one thing that sustained him. He sensed God abiding with him and his fellow prisoners in the labor camp, and he chose to offer up his life and his hard labor there to God. He also risked his life to minister as a priest to his fellow prisoners, leading secret Masses, hearing their confessions and offering them sacramental absolution. At any time, any one of them could have reported on him for their own gain and turned him in to meet his death. He returned home to America in 1962. 

As I look out my window and I watch the birds gathering food, building nests, and living quiet simple lives of Creator-endowed grace from moment to moment, I can think of Jesus’ words about the sparrows to his disciples. And I can know that just as he watches them in the fields and trees, and just as he watched Walter Ciszek in the gulag, and just as he watches all of us — I know he watches me, too.

“Why should I feel discouraged

Why should the shadows come

Why should my heart be lonely —

When Jesus is my portion

A constant friend is he

His eye is on the sparrow

And I know he watches me” 

(lyrics Civilla D. Martin)

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck

An Advocate to Be With You Always (John 14:15-21)

Sixth Sunday of Easter

In this reading, Jesus promises his disciples that after he has gone, they will not be alone: the Holy Spirit will come to dwell with them and in them, and not just with them but with disciples through the ages. But it will require some movement on the disciples’ part too — on our part — to know the Holy Spirit and work with him. Jesus tells them, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate (Paraklētos) to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept because it neither sees nor knows him. But you know him, because he remains with you, and will be in you.”

The word usually translated “Advocate,” “Counselor,” or “Helper” (Paraklētos) comes from the root verb parakaleo, which has a broad range of meaning: to urge, encourage, ask, console, comfort, and even summon or invite. Because of the multitude of ways that the Holy Spirit works with us — including all of the above — it seems very fitting that the word used to describe the Spirit would be so versatile.

The way that Jesus speaks about this makes it clear that the Holy Spirit, who like Christ is part of the Personhood of God, is not simply going to whir away in the background accomplishing things while not involving us in any way. Jesus tells his disciples, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name — he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you” (John 14:26). Jesus connects the Holy Spirit with the active result of loving him: keeping his commandments. Through knowing and participating with the Spirit, we will be much better able to keep the more difficult commandments of Jesus, the ones that ask us to subordinate our automatic tendency toward self-focus and to love others with a willingness to sacrifice that self-focus.

When we act on Jesus’ teachings out of love for him, we are transformed. “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him” (John 14:23). How does this happen, and what is the role of the Holy Spirit? Saint Paul writes that, among other things, the Holy Spirit helps us to pray, and thereby to come closer to the same God of whom the Spirit is a part, to know him and to feel him within our depths.

When we sit in quiet prayer, listening to whatever God might have to say to our hearts with his mercy and love, or reflecting on a Scripture passage, or holding other people before our mind’s eye in prayer for them, the Holy Spirit is stirring within us. In this stirring he is helping us to pray, and when we respond with our love and our prayer, he stirs and orients our being toward God all the more. Over time, if we cooperate in the unfolding of this process, a charitable spirit toward others overcomes more and more of our innate selfishness and we become configured to Christ. When this happens we can feel, like Paul, that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

Perhaps we might feel peace, or a desire to pray still more. But inevitably and irresistibly, we will also experience the urge to be a more positive presence in the lives of others — even in seemingly small but actually big ways like practicing more active kindness and compassion, both for strangers and for people we know well, both for people we like and people we don’t. It is for the latter that we must rely even more on the stirring of the Holy Spirit within us. For Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you… For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?… But love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing in return; then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:27-36).

We will know that we’re working with and being transformed by the Holy Spirit when we notice “the fruits of the Spirit” in our being, manifesting themselves in our actions. Paul describes these fruits as “charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, modesty, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). To the degree that we can willingly grow in these through our cooperation with the Holy Spirit, we become more like Christ. And this is what he wants for us, not only for the good of others whose lives will inevitably benefit from our becoming more like Christ, but for our own good. There is nothing better for our souls than to become as closely united to the Source of our very being, the Source of all love, as we possibly can. Only in that Source do we discover our truest selves, the people that our Creator sees in us and wants us to be.

Holy Spirit, Paraklētos, one of the three Persons of the united God, help us to pray, to know humility, to work with you to become more like Christ who is the Way, and thereby to radiate outward the love that we feel in God.

Copyright © 2017 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

The Luminous Mysteries

Until very recently, I was not aware of the meditative power that the rosary can hold. For many years I did not meditate on the rosary at all, and when a while ago I did return to praying it, for several months I didn’t even bother with meditating on the Mysteries that are assigned to it. Perhaps I felt that simply moving through the prayers with the right attention and frame of mind was all that I could manage at one time, until I got my rosary “legs” underneath me again. Whatever the reason, though, I eventually progressed to the point where I was at last ready to try the most enriching dimension of the rosary, the dimension that holds such fullness of potential for encountering God: reflecting on the Mysteries.

There are twenty Mysteries, which are divided into four groups of five. The four groups are the Joyful Mysteries, the Luminous Mysteries, the Sorrowful Mysteries, and the Glorious Mysteries. Since the rosary is divided into five parts, or “decades,” which correspond to five Mysteries, the person meditates on only one of the groups. S/he is spared the task of choosing which group, since there is a customary order that goes by the days of the week. In any case, each of the twenty Mysteries focuses on an event in the life of Christ, with the exception of a few that come from the life of Mary. Yesterday, I found some time to pray the rosary while meditating on the Luminous Mysteries, which are these: 

  1. The Baptism of Christ in the Jordan (Mark 1:9-11)
  2. The Manifestation of Christ at the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12)
  3. The Proclamation of the Kingdom of God and Jesus’ Call to Conversion (Mark 1:14-15)
  4. The Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8)
  5. The Institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper (Mark 14:22-26)

This meditative form of Christian prayer involves focusing the mind on each of these events in turn (following the sections of the rosary) with imagination — visualization — as the lion’s share of the process. For this a person simply needs a humble openness to God, and an openness to wherever the visualization of these Mysteries might lead. Despite a bit of trepidation at first, owing to uncertainty over whether I would be “good at it” or not, I soon found myself with the feeling of drawing back further and further into my mind, into these scenes in the life of Christ. It did not take long for me to enter far enough into each of the scenes in my mind to feel as if I were present there, watching. Though still aware of my surroundings, I also felt considerably detached from them, as if I had mentally entered a different but safe and richly promising place.

I want to write about one thing that occurred to me during this meditative prayer, as I reflected on Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist, who famously expressed shock at the idea that he was being asked to baptize the one “whose sandals he was not fit to untie.” Nonetheless, John did baptize Jesus, after which we are told the Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove, and God gave a message from Heaven about His Son. As I envisioned this scene in my mind, I felt John’s astonishment as he looked up from the river in which he was baptizing the crowds, to see the very man who represented the Kingdom that John was proclaiming, walking toward him. I imagined John’s awareness that the scene was playing out ostensibly the reverse of how it should — the baptizer knew how outrageous it was that he was baptizing the one who had every right to baptize him.

And that particular point was what got my attention. As John unflinchingly admitted, he himself was only “the voice crying out in the wilderness,” someone who raised his hand to point at someone and something else beyond himself, knowing that the attention belonged elsewhere. But God, in the person of Christ, elected to subordinate Godself — not only in the Incarnation as a human being in the first place, but in the subordination to human hands, with the baptism in the Jordan as a striking example. In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul quotes a hymn that praises God the Creator for “emptying Himself” by taking on human form in Christ and experiencing human weakness in an unpredictably radical demonstration of divine love. 

This, it turned out, was not going to be a God who would emerge loudly from the sky with dramatic clouds and blowing trumpets, or who would swoop down with a holy saber to eradicate enemies, or who would instantly make everything triumphantly perfect with a wave of His hand. This, instead, was going to be a God who would send Himself here to be born. Not to gloriously appear in the atmosphere with orchestral accompaniment, but to be born the old-fashioned, messy, “unclean” way. This was going to be a God who would submit Himself to hunger, thirst, pain, despair, suffering, and even the disgrace of execution. This was a God who would take the hand of Jairus’ young daughter who had died, incurring (in the belief of onlookers at least) the strong ritual uncleanness that came from touching a corpse. The holy and the divine were supposed to be strictly separated from any ritual uncleanness, and never the two should meet. But here was a God who didn’t seem to think so. This God, after all, was the one who said to St. Paul, “My power is made perfect in weakness.”

All these things seemed encapsulated in the image of Christ submitting himself to be baptized. A profound respect the Creator must have for His creations, it seemed to me, in order to do these things. What if we looked at one another with the same respect? And even though this God’s power is made perfect in weakness, it is a formidable power that can assure the 14th-century English mystic, Julian of Norwich, that at the end “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well…And I saw full surely that ere God made us He loved us; which love was never slacked, nor ever shall be…and in this love our life is everlasting. In our making we had beginning; but the love wherein He made us was in Him from without beginning: in which love we have our beginning. And all this shall we see in God, without end.” (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love)

© 2012 Elizabeth Keck