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Was there ever a time when “poet” was a legitimate job description? Maybe, centuries ago, you could get a gig as a court poet, or have a de Medici support you as a contribution to the arts. Sadly, today, the de Medicis among us have very little use for poetry. It is a gift, but not a commodity. And spiritual poetry, alas, with its propensity to probe and question, comfort yet cause unease, is relegated to the bottom of the artistic heap. This can disheartening, yet I can’t stop an intense desire to live within the world of words (however imperfectly I receive them) that God supplies so temptingly and freely.

I ask for tongues of fire:
ashes appear.
Underneath there is heat,
seething, sufficient
to melt me to the bone.
If I could bury myself in poetry,
I might burn righteously,
pure as glass, pious as
a Lutheran steeple.
But poetry is no place to live,
even for church mice.
No one subsists on words,
even if they roll off the tongue
like buttered toffee.
I must be content
to live in the world of man.
Secretly, however, I burn.

 

 

There was a women’s march last weekend. Then, there was a backlash. (Of course there was a backlash.) Most of the content of that backlash centered on the marchers themselves — specifically, their looks. Certain male politicians characterized these women as “ugly” — a word often consigned to feminists — or “fat.” These men know how to push buttons. They know exactly how to hurt us.

And yet: To look at these naysayers objectively, it is clear that we are not dealing with young Paul Newman lookalikes. There is nothing beautiful, graceful or aesthetically pleasing about them. They are, as my mother would say, “as homely as a mud fence.” You could tell these men that, but they wouldn’t care. Because it doesn’t matter. A man doesn’t have to be beautiful. His entire worth to society — to the world — isn’t bound up in his looks.

But ours (as women) is.

Why? Why? The question keeps ringing in my head like a plaint. Because you see, I know women who marched — in D.C. and other areas. They are beautiful inside and out. More importantly, they are smart. Most importantly — and I use this adjective with the gravity it deserves — they are holy. Which is a darned sight more important than beautiful. Which is, in fact, much harder to obtain.

I vacillate between gentle, head-shaking wonder and furious rage when I examine the dichotomy between what we say we are as a nation and what we do. Politicians, especially conservative ones, like to call us a Christian country. But what would God think of building a wall to keep people out? I’m talking about the God who sent his son to say, “What you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.” What would God think about denigrating whole swaths of people, trying — quite calculatedly — to shut them up and shut them down?

I have been told a hundred times to “accept” what is happening politically. To smile and accentuate the positive. But this isn’t about policy differences. It’s about opposing what I see as evil. I will never back down from opposing evil. It is my moral right — my moral imperative — to oppose it.

It is also my imperative to disabuse the notion that a woman’s looks define her. Until we are all judged by the content of our souls, no one here — or anywhere — is free.

“We all got together and picked a new name for you,” my boss — many years ago — popped her head in my door to tell me. “It’s Virginia.”

“You are aware,” I replied patiently, “that I am a married woman?”

“Oh yes,” she said. “But you just seem so innocent.” It wasn’t a compliment.

Years later, a woman at the hair salon spontaneously burst out with the following: “Your eyes are so innocent looking!” I thanked her, but pondered whether or not I ought to have.

Nowadays, I view things differently. See, I always thought that the goal of any life was to do something — to add something to one’s repertoire that caused sensational good in the world. If I did this thing I was meant to do, I reasoned, I could die in a state of grace.

But maybe it isn’t about adding so much as it is about refusing to subtract. Let me explain. When I was born, my mother wrote me a letter. In it, she noted how much I looked like her — except for my eyes, which held such innocence. She prayed that I would always be this way, untouched by the evils of the world.

Though I like to think of myself as a woman of the world — and certainly I have endured and/or witnessed things that are not easy — I do retain a streak of naiveté. I expect that others will be honest with me because I will be honest with them. I believe that people will not want to do hurtful things, that only hurt people do hurtful things. It always shocks me when I witness someone doing harm purely for the fun of it, or without seeming to care. How can such a person be that way?

I once complained to a superior that I had been promised something by a colleague and was disappointed that he didn’t mean it. Why would he say something he didn’t mean? “Are you stupid?” she asked pointedly. Well, maybe I am. Or maybe I have retained a quality that God (and my dear mother) wanted me to retain: A certain purity. A certain innocence.

Maybe the goal of my life isn’t so much to add but to fail to subtract — to fail to give in to the forces of the world that would turn me jaded and apathetic. Maybe by remaining surprised and hurt by the evil in the world, I am further spurred to reject it for something better. Maybe my eyes aren’t so much innocent, but ever-hopeful.

What quality do you exhibit that should never be quashed? A sense of adventure? The ability to make others laugh? Resilience? Whatever that quality is, don’t lose it. After all, it may be the very thing you were put on this earth to keep.

A [choose one: a) genie b) fairy c) angel d) pink unicorn] suddenly appears right in front of you and asks, “If you could be anything, what would you be?” I imagine most people would choose a word like “rich” or “powerful,” or more specific words like “a pro football player” or “a rock star.” Who on earth would pick a word like “holy”?

Holiness gets a bum rap, mostly because few of us understand it. Holiness doesn’t separate a person from others; it draws people together. Holiness doesn’t demand complete self-abandonment. Holiness empowers total self-integration. To be holy is to be whole.

Imagine being wholly yourself — using all of your gifts to their fullest extent, allowing your personality to fully bloom, pursuing your passions utterly. That’s all part of being holy. Holy people aren’t partial people; they are the complete package. They know themselves, yet push themselves to always be more. When you meet a holy person — and so few of us do — you know it.

But holy people also embrace their holey-ness, that is, their brokenness. They know where they are lacking in physical and spiritual gifts. What they can work on, they do. But what cannot be changed, what is innately “holey” in them, they know to nurture. They love themselves, warts and all, as God loves them…and they extend the same love to other “holey” people. And let’s face it — we’re all holey.

If you’d asked me, back when I was a kid, what being holy looked like, you would have got a rather bland picture: Someone looking terribly serious, saintly and silent. I no longer think that. To be truly holy, one must constantly reach for action verbs — words like share, give, work, labor, protect, bless, and love. In other words, holiness is hard work. That may be the reason so few of us bother with it.

I am blessed to know a few truly holy people. They are the kind of people you want to be around. They seem at peace. They are attuned to others but don’t neglect themselves. People naturally gravitate toward them. And with good reason. Holy people are remembered, even centuries after their lives, not because they were dull do-gooders, but because they were vibrantly alive — vibrantly themselves.

Holiness is worth pursuing. Tell that to the next pink unicorn you meet.

“It’s no big deal,” my sister says on the phone of her recent hysterectomy. “Of all my surgeries, it was the easiest.” Of course, this is a woman who has had surgery on her eyeball. And endured a double mastectomy. It is not surprising to me that she is stoic. She knows the way of pain.

The way of pain is also Jesus’ way. Imagine, if you will, being tortured for hours by Roman guards, kept up all night, having a crown of thorns digging inexorably into your head…then being loaded up with a wooden crucifix you can barely lift and having to drag it to your own execution site. All this before getting nailed to said cross and dying of exsanguination or collapsed lungs or shock or all three. And yet the gospel-writers never include anything about Jesus hollering curses or demanding morphine or even venting slightly with a few cross words (pun intended). Jesus takes on the worst physical pain — and the pain of all the sins of the world — and still finds time to take care of his mother, forgive a thief and absolve his murderers. Now that is something.

Pain is lonely. It cuts a person off from others. There is no “sharing” pain; each person’s pain is unique. When I broke my ankle many years ago, I felt pretty bad. Then a friend of mine related the story of how she broke her ankle. Just hearing the story made me know that what I was experiencing was, frankly, laughable.

Pain is dehumanizing, reducing most of us to our worst selves. When an animal is in pain, it may hide. If confronted, it will bite. We humans do this too, in our own way. Neither strategy lessens the pain, but the kind of thinking that goes along with pain is seldom rational.

Pain has become something of a dirty word in this country. We will go to great lengths to extinguish it with pills, shots and other tinctures, both of the legal and illegal variety. No one wants to walk through pain. But pain is also salvific: It is perhaps our only means of intersecting our life experience with that of Christ. I will never be able to multiply loaves and fishes, but I can certainly understand how it feels to hurt.

Holy Week is coming up next week, a week wherein we remember Jesus’ suffering and his triumph over death. It seems an opportune time to reflect on the pain in our lives. We all experience pain, physical, mental or spiritual. But what we do with that pain matters. Non-Catholics tease Catholics over the use of the phrase, “Give it up to God.” We use it a lot, for everything from small deprivations to devastating losses. But what that phrase means is this: With this experience, I am touching, in the tiniest way, the way of the cross and the way of Christ. This provides an opportunity for something special — to choose Jesus’ response of understanding, acceptance and sanctification or to allow myself to be diminished.

The way of pain is not the easy way. It is not something to strive for. But when it is thrust upon us, as it inevitably is, it is a place of possibility. And in this place, we are at one with God.

 

 

NB: I did not write this post. My friend Joan Frisz did. But it is so luminous, so lovely and so very timely that I was impelled to give up my weekly post in hopes that you will read this instead. It is a wonderful Lenten reflection, and I am proud to pass it on to you.

Well, it’s Lent again!

What began as a reflection for Ash Wednesday has morphed into this, so you’re going to get an amalgamation of things for this first Sunday of Lent.

Let’s start with the basics: I don’t like Lent. Never have. Being a competitor, I just haven’t felt I was very good at it. It’s not the giving up or giving more that seems to be the challenge. I can surely must up the self-discipline for that, at least for 40 days – and all the Sundays that don’t even count. I think the challenge for he has always been the expectation (have I mentioned that I’m competitive?). Perhaps it’s that I don’t like change. That is what this is all about, isn’t it? Changing our ways to make room for change in our hearts?

As I begin this reflection, I draw on the Litany of Non-Violence from the Sisters of Providence (I will draw on this throughout the reflection):

Provident God, aware of our own brokenness, we ask the gift of courage to identify how and where we are in need of conversion in order to live in solidarity with Earth and all creation.

Today we have the opportunity to say yes to the journey of Lent. These 40 days recall Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness and Jesus’ 40 days in the desert that prepared him for his public ministry. It prepares us to celebrate the mystery of the Cross, where the end of mortal life becomes the beginning of eternal life. It is a time to encounter God, to encounter Christ in others, and to respond with justice and compassion. it is a call to conversion, both personal and societal.

Deliver us from the violence of superiority and disdain. Grant us the desire, and the humility,
to listen with special care to those whose experiences and attitudes are different from our own.

Archbishop Oscar Romero has been in the news recently as he has been named a martyr for the faith, paving the way to his beatification. I would guess that that wouldn’t be as important to him as justice for the poor. the story of his conversion is well- known. A conservative priest and bishop, he was suspicious of the reforms of Vatican II and troubled by Liberation Theology emerging in the Latin American Catholic Church. He believed in the basic goodness of those who were in power in el Salvador and did not see the need for an end to the social, political, and economic status quo. However, he was deeply moved by the suffering of the poor, those whose experiences were different from his own, the killing of priests and others at the hands of the death squads, and he became an outspoken critic of those in power, calling for an end to the repression. Even as he was being converted, he called for the conversion of the powerful who had turned against him. For his efforts he was assassinated as he celebrated the Eucharist.

Deliver us from the violence of greed and privilege. Grant us the desire, and the will, to live simply so others may have their just share of Earth’ s resources.

One of the three pillars of Lent, almsgiving, gives us a deepened awareness of how blessed we are. We let go of some of our abundance so that others might prosper, too. The challenge is to examine our want for money, power, comfort, and privilege. By my race and nationality, I was born with a certain amount of privilege. By my gender I may have lost some of it, but overall, it has probably been regained with education and opportunity, job stability, family and community support. I know this is not true for all white, American women. Women the world over, including in our own backyard, suffer from religious and cultural norms that exclude them, or reduce them to less than fully human. As racial tensions ebb and flow in our own country, we realize that these are not isolated incidents with certain individuals, but they point to larger systemic ills in our communities and in society as a whole. Upon the death of a homeless man in our community just this week, the Assistant to the Mayor, lamenting the lack of funding that could have provided adequate housing to him, wrote to the St. John Center staff, “We seem to be a country comfortable with paying for punishment but not so willing to fund cures for societal ills.” As a covenant people, our baptismal call is to bear witness to the truth revealed through Christ, to be love and peace in our troubled world.

 Deliver us from the silence that gives
consent to abuse, war and evil.
Grant us the desire, and the courage, to risk speaking and acting for the common good.

I was struck by the language of the opening prayer prescribed for Ash Wednesday. It reads, in part, “Grant…that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint….” “Battle.” “Armed.” “Weapons.” Really? As one who believes that words do matter, I’m not sure this is the best way to engender a spirit of peace, especially in our troubled times. Someone has said, “Truth is what you get when truth is what you speak.” (Melissa Etheridge) The same could be said about love and peace. Peace is what you get when peace is what you speak.

Every day we are bombarded with stories and images of war and violence. Guns, bombs, drones, swords, and torture. All these – instruments of war – used to exert power and control. We pray for an end to violence. It begins with the setting down of these instruments so that our hands are empty to take up instruments of peace. While empty hands can cause much harm, they can also embrace, created, nurture, heal, liberate, share, and empower. Lent invites us to give up so that we have the capacity to embrace something new.

Deliver us from the violence of irreverence, exploitation and control.
Grant us the desire, and the strength, to act responsibly within the cycle of creation.

And here, we are invited to consider the third pillar of Lent, fasting. Fasting challenges us to give up in other ways, realizing that we take in more than enough to sustain us. This can be, but is not necessarily limited to food. There are many things from which we can fast – irreverence, exploitation, and control, for example. Sr. Sue Scharfenberger gave us some options several years ago that bear repeating: We can choose to fast from having the last word, or fast from holding on to a past hurt or memory. We can fast from always being right so that we can hear and hold sacred the truth of another.

Fasting – how, when, where, and from what – involves choices. When we face temptation, as Jesus did in today’s Gospel, we also face choices. While we cannot avoid them altogether, we can choose to walk away from them. In that choice, we decide who we want to be and how we want to live. Jesus embraced fully the human reality of struggling to be faithful. He faced temptations and he made a choice – to go to Galilee and proclaim the gospel of God. “No doubt about it,” Joan Chittister writes, “Fasting surely has something to do with peacemaking. It puts us in touch with the Creator. It puts us in touch with ourselves. It puts us in touch with the prophet Jesus who, fasting in the desert, gave up power, wealth, comfort, and self-centeredness, and teaches us to do the same. It puts us in touch with the rest of the creation whose needs now cry out in our own.”

The Litany of Nov-Violence concludes:

God of love, mercy and justice, acknowledging our complicity in those attitudes, actions and words which perpetuate violence, we beg the grace of a non-violent heart.

The journey of Lent, indeed “our discipleship journey, is a constant call to move back onto the path that Jesus marked for us – a path that calls us to be instruments of God’s peace,” (Dave Robinson)

to sow love where there is hatred pardon where there is injury
faith where there is doubt
hope where there is despair
light where there is darkness
joy where there is sadness. (Prayer of St. Francis)

The pastor of the Arab Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Aleppo, Syria, states that “being a pastor in this crisis is not as much about preaching as it is being with the people in their difficult time…. we are called to live in hope. We trust God and we do our job – praying, taking care of each other, reading the bible and being an instrument of love and peace in this community. This is what we do, and this is the hope we live in.” (Rev. Ibrahim Nsier)

Yep, Lent is here again! Amidst the challenges and expectations, let us walk this journey together, seeking peace within our own hearts that we might bring peace to our homes, to our city, to our country, and to our world. Amen!

— Joan C. Frisz

Her name is Trudy, and she has a smile that could light up a room. She is sitting next to me at the teppanyaki table, and we exchange a glance when the waiter gets her drink order wrong. Soon, we are chatting. Turns out, her family lost their home in the April storms. Gone…just like that. They couldn’t stand being cooped up — all five of them — in the tiny trailer the government provided for them, so Trudy and her husband are taking a well-deserved night off, away from their kids, the youngest of whom is just six. They still have nightmares about the tornado.

It has occurred to me lately that holiness is not something that can be achieved in stasis; it must be worked on daily, and with great concentration. It is an action verb. Although it is all well and good to care about others, unless that care is backed up with concrete action, the work of holiness will not be done.

This prospect scares me. I honestly can’t see myself out on the streets, ministering to the homeless or in a hospital, holding the hands of the dying. As much as I feel I ought to be doing these things, I’m held back by my own inadequacies. I’m not much of a nurturer. I’m more of a contemplative, a scholar, a thinker. And it occurs to me that this stands as something of a barrier to holiness.

And then it struck me. “Pray” may not sound like an action verb, but it is. As are “listen,” “empathize,” “smile” and — dare I say it? — “write.” I may not be cut out for the same kinds of holiness as someone else is, but perhaps God made me just right after all…with my own avenues to holiness.

Back to Trudy: She thanks me for listening and calls me a “good person.” I feel blessed to have met her and tell her I will keep her in my prayers. And I have. Because holiness is job #1, and like all jobs, it requires my most tenacious and heartfelt labor. Funny thing though…it doesn’t feel like labor. In fact, it feels a whole lot like joy.

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