take… and receive

What follows is based on a homily I gave on March 2. The Gospel was Jesus teaching the disciples the Lord’s Prayer. I chose to focus on the words, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

When we pray, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” what is God’s will?  Perhaps it is simply another way of trying to express God’s deep desire for us, for our good, and through us, the good of others.  In this prayer we ask for a congruence between our own desires and those of God: a harmony of wills, of desiring.  

A beautiful thought, but not always easy.  For it seems that God’s desire for our good, and even our desire for God’s desire, does not always result in consolation.  Just the opposite.  Consider Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane as he faces the suffering that will lead to his death: “If it be your will, let this cup pass from me.”  The ways of God as they play out in this mortal coil can be fraught, especially as we are asked to yield what is most precious, all that we have lived for and loved, all the love we have received, all that makes us ourselves: to hand it all over.  The real test of these words, “thy will be done,” is how ready we are to face death, the relinquishment of all that we love.  

I am afraid that this is where we will encounter our own deep resistance to God.  For in the distance there stands the Cross, an emblem of death.  As we grow closer to the Cross through age and suffering, it looms ever larger.  We know that we have to go there ourselves one day.  Our resistance to it is impossible to overcome by our own will; the only recourse is surrender, even through tears, to the sufficiency of God’s love and grace: “not my will, but yours be done.”   There is something of the “Suscipe” in this prayer.  The “Suscipe,” or prayer of God’s receiving, comes at the end of the Spiritual Exercises::

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.

This prayer is almost incomprehensible or at best naïve if viewed as some heroic act of self-sacrifice.  But it begins to make sense when seen as a reverential opening of ourselves to the uncontrollable power of divine love, inviting God to take from us, little by little—as if we were sharing—all that we are; and to receive it, to receive us.  This is the other side of the agony in the garden, or where that agony leads: to an encounter with God that brings an end to agony—the God who invites us to enter into a season of ultimate intimacy. “Take, receive.” And thus, in love:, “O God, not my will, but yours be done,” “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Spring

Spring begins today. Long awaited!

Here a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –          
   When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;          
   Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush          
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring          
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing; 
   The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush          
   The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush          
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.  
        

What is all this juice and all this joy?          
   A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning 
In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy,          
   Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,          
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,          
   Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.  
        

Comfort from Yo Yo Ma

Last night the PBS Newshour ran an interview with cellist Yo Yo Ma, who spoke of the consoling effect of music at times like these that we are all facing together.  What really struck me in the interview was the self-description he gave of his own calling:

“When I was 19, I had a teacher who said, Yo-Yo, you haven’t found your voice.

“And I said, OK. And so I kept looking for my voice. And I think my voice is in finding the needs of others and then representing them. And that’s — and so, everywhere I go, it’s always about finding what people are thinking, feeling, how they think about themselves in the world.

“And if I can find something that they need, and if I can actually offer a little bit of something that is comforting, then that’s how I would define my job.”

It’s hard to imagine a better outlook now, or at any time.  Here is the interview, in case you missed it:  https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/yo-yo-ma-on-encouraging-songs-of-comfort-amid-global-crisis

Heaven

People seem to love to talk of heaven, or at least once did, and believed in it fervently—or in some fantastic phantasm of it.  I don’t do enjoy doing that, truth be told, as my finite human imagination inevitably leads me to the unpleasant conclusion that I might just be bored if I ever were admitted to a place usually described as beautiful, pristine, perfect, peaceful. Angels, harps, and clouds. Now, if that perfect place were filled with all the books I haven’t gotten around to reading, all the pictures I haven’t seen, all the knowledge I haven’t attained, all the love I’ve missed—then, maybe, for something approaching an eternity, it would keep me busy and even enthralled; but still, ultimately bored, because all I am doing in building up a picture like that is multiplying, ad infinitum, the finite world I already know.

It is impossible to know quite what we’re talking about anyway when we use the word heaven, except, I think, that it is a stand-in for an experience of mystery of God that we cannot fully have this side of the infinite divide.  Heaven is not a place, of that I am utterly convinced, except insofar as the whole of reality, created and uncreated, is a “place” permeated and held by God. And we are already in that place, or some place within that place.  The real “experience” of heaven, I like to imagine, is moving from this state of being into another: the wonder is in the movement, the constant unfolding, like changing color in a kaleidoscope, what one commentator on Aquinas called the “unending nativity” of God—except that here I am speaking of the “unending nativity” of our journey into the mystery of God.  

But there is more.  For I also imagine heaven to be startling—a change in perspective, in seeing—sensing—so radical that it upends us and takes us by surprise.  I was given a sense of this as a child.  We had two peach trees alongside our patio.  In the springtime they would explode into glorious, fragrant fronds of pink and white flowers.  My father, who had a gift for creating magic, would cut some of the longest ones, put them in the largest vases he could find, and place them in the living room by the white brick fireplace.  I will never forget the shock of it—the miracle of Spring overtaking the most ordinary and everyday of places, inside our house.  These improbably tall stalks of flowers!  There was no escaping the power of it.  Life didn’t look, smell, or feel the same—it was elevated, filled with light, transformed. I can only imagine that the surprise of heaven must be something like that, and the thought of it gives me sheer delight and great peace.

David Dances

The following are a few stray thoughts that came together as a homily on the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas (January 28, 2020).  The readings were from the Second Book of Samuel, where David dances upon the arrival of the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem, and the Gospel, Mark 3:31–35, has Jesus saying that his mother, and brothers and sisters are those who do the will of God.  Someone suggested that I post this here, and so here it is:

David is dancing… dancing around the arrival of the Ark of the Covenant.  This ark contained the tablets of the Law.  These were, after all, believed to be the very tablets God had given to Moses.  They had been carried by the Israelites for centuries, housed in various makeshift shelters.  One day they would be housed in a magnificent temple, in the Holy of Holies and would become the center of the temple devotional life.      

Why this rejoicing?  Because the tablets of the Law, what we now call the Ten Commandments, were a concrete, palpable, living symbol of God’s love for his people, and of the people’s love for God.  Much as the Eucharist is for us today.  People streamed to the temple in later centuries to be near these symbols of the Covenant, to draw nearer to the holiness of God, to achieve a well-ordered common life.

St. Thomas Aquinas, whose feast we celebrate today, was a radical for his time (the thirteenth century).  He said that the precepts of the Law are not simply about prohibition: don’t do this, don’t do that.  They are about charity: self-giving love, because God is love.  What a refreshing idea:  The commandments boil down, he says, to selfless love of God through love for our neighbor. 

Many Catholics, and perhaps others, have a tendency to over-legalize the Commandments—to turn them into cattle prods.  Did I do this, did I not do that?  Did I violate the law of God?  We can turn God into a monster and ourselves into neurotics. But love of God and neighbor turn us outward, away from ourselves alone, and toward others:  they are ordered to the common good so that God’s justice might prevail in all things: meaning that everything should be ordered to what is true and good and beautiful for each person, and for the community as a whole.  Or so Thomas taught.

The questions we should be asking ourselves each day are like these:  Did I respond to the call to love this day?  Did I live for others and not just for myself?  Did I help another when they needed help?  Did I at least care about, and not judge, someone unlike myself?  

Jesus was a radical, too. He said that anyone is a member of his family who does the will of God, by which he meant to love the neighbor.  His understanding of family is, like the Law itself, ordered toward love of God and neighbor, toward a world of harmonious justice, the Kingdom, something bigger than ourselves:  A common good that reaches beyond our sometimes pinched view of things, where we limit ourselves to family ties, parties, or identities.

At a time when there is so much discord, when the common good seems to have been subsumed by a pursuit of personal benefit as an absolute value, when we witness a zero-sum game in politics in Washington, when we can easily become focused on our own problems and sufferings, we might remember that there is an alternative, a vision of how things could be, how they can be.   A common good, flowing from and back toward the good that is God, who is love.

Joseph

The following are notes from a homily given December 18.  The Gospel reading for the Mass was Matthew 1: 18–25, where, in a dream, an angel counsels Joseph to have no fear.  

The focus today is on Joseph and the quandary he faces in realizing that his betrothed is with child even before their marriage has been consummated.  Under Jewish law, the male could accomplish a divorce simply by declaring three times, “I divorce you.”  And it would have been done.  He was undoubtedly a very young man, as Mary was a very young woman—probably both teenagers and frightened enough by what they were facing.  But, thanks to the working of God’s grace into this young man’s life, and his having come to his senses, he was able to overcome his fears.  His love for Mary must have been a strong deciding factor.  Out of that love he had come to share in her own profound trust in the ways of God, and to “let it be done” unto him as the angel had counseled.  Together, then, the young couple would face the unknown future, placing their lives completely in God’s hands as they undertook the day-to-day work of pulling together the details of life—finding work, food, shelter, and safety.     

This was by no means easy, and we know how the story unfolds. Joseph’s trust was in a future that he could not see, the fulfillment of which he would not live to see.  Living in trust, he gradually fades from the story.  So, too, with us. The essence of faith, as Hebrews tells us, is belief in things not seen—promises lived into, but which we will never see fully realized. We will also gradually fade from the story.  This is the very premise of human love, of the courage to enter into marriage, or the persistent love of a parent for a child, even when it is difficult.  Or fidelity to a friend.  It is the premise of the most basic forms of faith.  We live into the promise, come what may, knowing only that we pass on to future generations the promise that we have been given.  Love gives itself away, in trust.

The hardest thing about trust is that we have to cede control over our lives, and finally, all control.  Not only do we not know where trust will take us, but we have no ultimate control over the destination, how we will get there, or what will be the effect, if any, of our having loved.  The Spirit of God carries us into a future not of our own making, and finally to that point, in death, where there is only God.

But we can be carried with a sense of active participation and peace if, like Joseph, we accept the grace of it, and thus let go of the natural fears involved in trusting in God.  For he, with Mary, learned that accepting the ways of God leads not to a sense of uncontrollable fate, a sort of free fall, but to just the opposite: the realization that “God is with us.”  And that God had been with them all along:  God’s presence, God’s shekinah, God’s dwelling within them, within us—more intimate to us than we are to ourselves (Augustine).  This kind of knowledge provides the foundation, the courage, the freedom to trust in the ways of God.  For by dint of this “God with us” grace, we know that whether we live, or whether we die, we belong to the Lord, and that in him we have our hope, our safe haven.  Thus did Joseph move into the next phase of his life; thus in faith can we.

David

These are notes for a homily to be given today. The readings are from Isaiah 25, Psalm 23, and Matthew 15. Today would have been my brother David’s sixtieth birthday. He died in 1994 from AIDS.

As this is the birthday of my brother, David, I would like to tell a story about him.  On the occasion of my ordination, we held a Mass of Thanksgiving in Sacramento, at St. Ignatius Church.  Afterwards, we hosted a pot-luck reception in the parish hall.  Our oldest neighbors from across the street, Helen and Grant Morgan, were there.  Helen and Grant were sort of fallen-away Methodists, the dearest and most genuine people you can imagine.  He was a plumber, and also an expert fisherman.  Grant and David were fishing partners. Grant was happy for the Crowleys, and, to contribute to the party, he had filleted a beautiful salmon he had caught in the waters of the upper Sacramento. By the time he delivered the salmon to the hall, however (on a very hot day up there), it had spoiled, unbeknownst to Grant.  David, who was a manager in the Engineering Department at the Hyatt Hotel downtown, knew just what to do.  He called the kitchen and asked the chef to fillet a salmon on a platter.  He would pick it up, put it in the place where Grant had placed his fish, and Grant would never know the difference.  David didn’t want Grant suffer disappointment, especially when his gesture was one of such generosity and pride in his beautiful catch.  Grant died, a year or so ago, never knowing what David had done.

Double generosity—on both Grant’s part, and David’s—and a history of friendship and mutual care, resulting in plenty for everyone. The images we encounter in the Scripture readings this Advent day are of such plenty, of banquets and bounty overflowing.  Isaiah speaks of rich food and choice wines; the Psalmist speaks of a table spread before him, of a cup that overflows; and Jesus—Jesus, moved with care and compassion for his people, provides good food to the crowd: fresh bread and bounteous fish.  

What fascinates me about this gospel is what must have been stirring in Jesus’s heart.   His gesture, one of such warm hospitality, of generosity and care, must have come from a heart that was well honed by direct experience of these things.  Growing up in a large Middle Eastern Jewish family, there must have been lots of food being cooked and shared all the time, guests invited in and treated royally, and plenteous wine, along with bread and dates and figs.  There must have been a deep sense of beauty implanted in his soul, at the core of his being; he must have known verdant pastures in Galilee that spoke to him of God; he must have had a keen sensitivity toward others, and a desire to care for them, to bring them to life.  He must have known himself the kind of tender care of which the Psalmist speaks, his head overflowing with the oil of love.  And he must have wanted to share these great gifts, this overflowing bounty, with others.  And do he did.

Generosity to generosity, beauty and expansiveness of heart, the generation of plenty.  Loving care for one another.  Joy. What great gifts we have to ponder and to be thankful for.

Fall in Northern California

Palo Alto Street

People often quip that California has no fall season; they would be quite wrong if they are speaking of Northern California, although old Pasadena has passing fair colors along its streets.  Some of the most spectacular displays of fall foliage are to be found in the streets of Sacramento, Palo Alto and Berkeley, where, over the years, people in these cities have planted a richly variegated urban canopy of birch, plane, ash, elm, Japanese maple, sugar maple, gingko, pistachio, chestnut, mulberry, elm, and countless more varieties.  These unleash their colors gradually, starting in late September.  The colors then slowly unfold, one into another, like a kaleidoscope, through mid-December.  The trees here can be planted in arching arcades, as one would find in the Midwest or New England, but are more typically interspersed haphazardly with olive, palm, deodora cedar, redwood, and scrub oak.  The result is a lush variegated palette of color, not a monochrome presentation of one color for a relatively short time, only to be followed by bleak grey, as I have witnessed in some other parts of the country.

Early Fall, Sacramento

I took a trip to Sacramento last weekend, hoping that the autumn leaves up there would be a little further along than they were down here in Santa Clara a week ago.  It’s all in the timing.  As it turned out, there were some well along (the birches always go first), but the drought had slowed things down by about a week.  And the lack of moisture had muted the colors on some trees, such as the London planes.  But others, like the ginkgos, were shining in their typical luminescent yellow.  They hold on to their leaves the longest, and then drop them virtually all at once.  

Early Fall, Capitol Park, Sacramento

A special treat is the arrival of fall in the wine country, where the vines themselves turn a range of colors, from yellows to oranges to reds.  Driving past rows of these low-lying plants is somewhat like flying over a New England hardwood forest, looking down on all the color.

This is the kind of Fall with which I grew up and became ever more familiar each year.  The temperatures drop. Currently we are waking up to mornings in the low forties, and in some places in the mid- to upper thirties, which is good for the trees and gives them that crisp brilliant coloration.  And this coming week we’ll finally get some much-delayed rain, which will hasten the end of fall, but which will produce even more brilliant colors.

Horse Chestnut, Santa Clara

When I was very young and still working at the piano, part of my repertoire was the etude, “Automne,” by Cecile Chaminade, a long-forgotten and underestimated composer who wrote in the Romantic style of the 19thcentury.  She was the first female composer to be admitted to the Légion d’honneur.  That rhapsodizing piece of music captures the wind and rain and swirl of leaves that we so associate with fall.  Sacramento autumns could often be like that, and so I played it with gusto.  I recall the day we buried my father, a November 2, when the wind from the Sierra foothills was stirring orange leaves and causing Fr. Buckley’s alb to billow like a sail.

While some might associate the fall with melancholy, I feel that emotion more acutely at the end of summer. The arrival of fall and its gradual glorious unfolding instead pitches me into a place where one can calmly contemplate the mystery of life and the beauty of its apparent end in the color-filled death of the leaves.  But, here at least, it will not be long before the buds reappear on those branches, harbingers of hope.