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.”
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.
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.
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.
These are notes for a homily to be given today. The readings are from Isaiah 25, Psalm 23, and Matthew15. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thirty-five years ago, on October 29, 1984, my father died. That was back in the days when we still had autumn in Sacramento, and even bluster and rain in late October. Before the fires. Dad, who was a third generation San Franciscan, born in 1911, was a gentle Irishman to the core, and he managed to let himself go into the arms of God with perfect Irish timing: a rosary on All Saints Day and a funeral on All Souls Day. I was not a Jesuit then, so my dear friend Michael Buckley, SJ, presided at the funeral and burial. I shall never forget those days, nor the aftermath. It took a good long while to adjust to the new reality that Dad was no longer with us.
What I am describing here is not a unique experience. We all have to deal with the immensity of the loss of a parent or a sibling, or of a good friend or beloved colleague. Coping with loss, undergoing grief—this is a huge part of life, nothing to be evaded or shunned. Gradually—or sometimes suddenly—we come to see that dying is a part of life, and letting go of our beloved is something that we are all called upon to accept. I learned this first-hand, for following upon Dad’s death were the deaths of a chorus of family friends (over whose funerals I presided—there must have been close to ten), my grandmother, my sister and brother, and only recently, my mother. And so many personal friends. All the losses are a part of the reality of life. And, one discovers that such a chronicle of life and death is not uncommon—most everyone my age can tell a similar story.
There are also losses short of death, as when parents decide to place their physically or intellectually challenged children in skilled care—a heart-wrenching but often necessary decision. Or when dear friends are suddenly struck by life-altering diseases that draw death closer. Or when they suffer so much pain that they want to give up.
Or when a marriage breaks down, or a parent is deprived of her children in the course of a divorce proceeding. Or when people lose everything, in fire, flood, hurricane, or tornado. Or when poor people are evicted mercilessly by avaricious landlords. Or when black people are shot and killed in their own homes by trigger-prone police. Or when young people in prison discover the tragic brokenness of life.
And I speak here only of “first world” experiences of loss. Only with effort one can begin to imagine what it must be like to suffer the complete sense of dislocation of a Syrian refugee, or of a Rohingya outcast, whose lives are limned by death on all sides.
How do we begin to take the measure of such a world of suffering, of loss? We cannot. Yet, without denying any of the suffering and pain that accompany all this loss or glossing over it, we can, in faith, nevertheless see all of this within the ambit of a larger reality—the fact that God does not cease to offer God’s love to all God’s beloved creatures, each uniquely and fully. And, as Paul said (Romans 8), despite all life’s suffering, nothing—not even death itself—can stand between us and love of God. On what basis does he say this? That that love was made real, enfleshed, in Jesus, who as a “man of sorrows” knew suffering, loss, and death intimately, but also learned how to live in loving hope. Because he was able to accept God’s offer of love in the depths of his being, he emerged victorious even through death itself. Somehow that faith expressed by Paul, when it is inscribed deeply in our own flesh, leads to a sense of ultimate hope, and a desire to love others as one would wish to be loved oneself. To act on their behalf. It is possible for us, trailing clouds of loss, but also of glory, not to be bowed by loss, but rather to find in it a place where God is in fact reaching into our lives, offering God’s very self to those who suffer.
Yet, within our limited lives, we want to help; we want to reach out. For those of us privileged enough to reflect on the loving activity of God, we are given as well the invitation, even the requirement, to pray. So often when I feel that there is nothing I can do for someone, much as I would like to be there at their bedside and to help, for example, I know that I can pray. And that prayer, that imploring openness to the God who is loving each of us still, is an infinite gift in itself—something of which, with God’s grace, we are capable, something we can do—a way of living the few days we’re given with some semblance of hope.
Yesterday my good friend Luis and I drove to Santa Cruz just to glimpse the ocean, only a half-hour away, but somehow elusive. Our lives and various events upend the most fervent hopes to get near the roaring and overwhelming phenomenon of nature that is the Pacific. Whenever I go there I look across the horizon and imagine that I can espy the shoreline of China or Japan. The Pacific links us rather than separates us. It makes the world seem smaller, more intimate, but also, given its sheer force and lurking threats, the ocean is a dangerous place. Especially for those who dare to swim in its waters. Or those, like the refugees of Lampedusa, who have been forced to swim, and some, to drown.
When I was a youthful 24, long before I became a Jesuit, I received a call from Catholic Social Services in Sacramento. It was an interlude year; I’d just received my master’s degree in religion from a university back East, and had returned to California, not knowing what might lie ahead in life. At the last minute I’d taken a teaching job at a local Catholic high school at a salary of $5,600—in those days, enough to rent a flat downtown and to buy an old VW jalopy. Social Services asked whether I was able to take in a young Vietnamese refugee who had been airlifted from Vietnam in the chaos following the defeat of the US in 1975.
Ho arrived with a bundle of clothes and a rice cooker. He could speak virtually no English, and so we communicated in an English-French patois of our own making. It was not easy. He was going through a massive life transition that was unimaginable to me—I, who had spent the previous six years in the protected enclaves of high-end universities. Suddenly, my small and relatively ordered world was invaded by the chaos of a refugee, down to the unfamiliar odor of the seaweed he would steam in his rice cooker. Ho, who came from a professional background back in Vietnam and who was highly educated, would board a bus each morning to the nearby town of Woodland where he worked in a packing plant (I think it was), working on a widget-like production line that required a mechanical movement of his right arm, back and forth, all day, five days a week. He would return to the flat exasperated, frustrated, and nearly in tears. I felt helpless to do anything to change his plight. I was frustrated, too, indeed overwhelmed by the reality of his suffering.
Ho introduced me to Buddhism. His father had died back in Vietnam and, with local help, he arranged for a Buddhist memorial service at temple in Sacramento. I shall never forget the beauty and reverence of the occasion, or how it opened my eyes to a horizon of piety that was new to me, although, as a Catholic, it was also somewhat familiar in its ritualistic depth. For the first time, I saw Ho in a state of peace.
One day a Vietnamese family arrived at the door. They had arranged with Catholic Social Services to give Ho a home to help him get restarted. And so began the second leg of his journey here in the US. I never saw him again, but can only hope that he finally adjusted to his new world. I will never know. But Ho was among the first to open my eyes to the fact that the earth is teeming with displaced people—far more now than in 1975. He also brought the realities of Vietnam home to me—quite literally. Later I was to learn much more about the plight of refugees as my life again accidentally intersected with that of a Salvadoran man, José, who was forced to flee for his life from that country in 1988. I met him through the Jesuit Refugee Service when I visited El Salvador as a Jesuit novice. (That is another story about which I have written elsewhere [The Sanctuary Experience: Voices of the Community, 2004]).
Today is the World Day of Migrants and Refugees. CNN estimates that some 71 million people today have been forced from their homes and that 25 million are refugees, with plights even more dire than that of Ho or José, if that is possible. And I would add to this teeming mass of humanity the millions of unsheltered people across the planet, not least in our own country. The harsh realities of their lives are affecting all of us, and our politics, in ways that could not have been anticipated back in 1975 or even 1988. Fear of what is happening across the globe has generated populist, nationalist, and openly xenophobic political movements and new forms of hatred and violence. Trump, Brexit, the Northern League, the Alternative for Germany, and other parties and movements are but the most obvious manifestations of this refusal to accept that the planet is undergoing massive change, that peoples are being uprooted by social, economic, political, military, and climatic shifts, and that we need to find ways of addressing all this in a realistic spirit. But something in the human psyche—call it the original sin of our selfishness writ large—presents an obstacle to embracing the migrant or the refugee as our sister, our brother, or allowing ourselves to be changed by them. We prefer to live as if these human beings did not exist. Or worse, to round them up, cage their children, separate families, and deport them.
Yesterday’s visit to the ocean took place during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year celebration. On the beach was a Jewish family, gathered in a circle of prayer. At one point they moved toward the water, each carrying a stone. And, standing there in silence, each tossed their stone into the churning foam. I was witnessing the ritual of Taslich, in which the devout toss a stone representing their sins into the water, where they are submerged and drowned by the force of the sea. On that same beach we met an Indian family scouting out a picnic area for a large family gathering. And, strolling along the strand near the beach were Russian Orthodox clergy in their long black robes—incongruous, but there they were. Yes, the ocean does remind us, quite literally, that the world is a small place, that we are one in our humanity. This is a good day to reflect on that reality.