Howard Thurman: Black Theologian, Mystic, and Mentor

The reading from Mark’s gospel about the Gentile woman’s request for Jesus to heal her daughter possessed by a demon is one of my favorites. Jesus had slipped away from the crowds, but the woman found him and threw herself at his feet, asking for help. When Jesus answered that the children must be fed first (a reference to the Jews) and that it would not be right to throw their food to the dogs, she was undeterred. Her faith was more expansive than that, and she told Jesus so. “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.”

It seems her words hit home. Perhaps her faith helped Jesus understand the inclusivity of God’s loving mercy and of Jesus’ own mission. He sent her on her way with the assurance that her daughter was healed.

This reading is especially appropriate these days when the sense of entitlement, privilege, and exclusivity seems to be on the rise, or at the least, more visible. When discrimination against people based on the color of their skin, their ethnicity, beliefs, or just being who they are becomes acceptable, we must respond.

February is Black History month, and it’s appropriate to celebrate people who have seen injustice and taken action. I would like to write about Howard Thurman. I first learned of him years ago from a friend studying at Andover-Newton Theological School. More recently, I took advantage of the “Howard Thurman Retreat Day” offered online by the Shalem Institute. (You can access this retreat if you’d like by visiting https://shalem.org).

His name remains unfamiliar despite his wide influence as a contemplative, mystic, theologian, pastor, and professor. There are many ways to respond to oppression, and though not in the forefront of marches and demonstrations, Thurman was influential in the Civil Rights movement and served as a spiritual mentor to many involved, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Howard Thurman was born in 1899 and grew up in Daytona Beach, Florida. His grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, a former slave, helped raise him. She shared the deep faith that had helped her survive enslavement, instilling in him a profound sense of identity as a child of God.

Thurman graduated valedictorian from Morehouse college. He studied at Rochester Theological Seminary and upon graduation was ordained a minister. His first pastorate was at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Oberlin, Ohio. There he met Quaker pacifist and mystic Rufus Jones, a professor at Oberlin with whom he would later study.

Thurman taught at Morehouse and Spelman Colleges and was a professor and Dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University.

In 1935, along with his wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, and other African Americans, Thurman was invited to join the six-month “Pilgrimage of Friendship” to India, Ceylon, and Burma. Prior to that trip, he and Mahatma Gandhi had corresponded and shortly before returning home, they met. Gandhi was curious about the aftermath of slavery and the conditions of Black people in the United States. They talked about non-violence and civil disobedience, and the importance of maintaining spiritual vitality in order to preserve in their practice.

In 1944, Thurman and Dr. Alfred Fisk founded the Church for the Fellowship All Peoples in San Francisco, California. The first intentional interracial, interfaith congregation in the country, it continues its mission today.

Thurman published numerous books, his most famous being Jesus and the Disinherited that looks at Jesus as a member of a minority class and sees in his life and teachings a guide for marginalized people responding to their oppression. This book greatly influenced Martin Luther King, Jr. who carried it with him whenever he marched.

Later in his career, Thurman became a professor and first African American Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. Martin Luther King, Jr. was earning his PhD in theology at Boston University at that time and attended Thurman’s sermons. Thurman became his spiritual mentor and shared the wisdom and conversations he had had with Gandhi about nonviolent protest.

Thurman’s understandings of the dehumanizing effects of oppression, the effect of hate and anger on those who allow them into their hearts, the necessity of gathering strength by spiritual practice, and non-violence have much to say to us today.

A number of books about him have been published. You can read his own works, and Boston University’s Listening room has an extensive library of recordings of Thurman’s sermons, talks, and lectures. Listen here: http://hgar-srv3.bu.edu/web/howard-thurman/virtual-listening-room

© 2018 Mary van Balen

Becoming Who We Are Made to Be

Becoming Who We Are Made to Be

Originally published in The Catholic Times Jan. 14, 2018

Photo of diffuse bright light at the top of stone staircase

Photo: Mary van Balen

Samuel paid attention. His heart was “awake” even as he slept. One night, in the shrine at Shiloh where he lived under the care of its aged high priest, Eli, Samuel heard someone call his name. He didn’t turn over and go back to sleep. “Here I am,” he responded and hurried to Eli, assuming the summons had come from him.

But it hadn’t. Eli instructed the boy to go back to sleep. After this happened two more times, Eli realized that the Lord was speaking to Samuel and instructed him to reply, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” if he were to hear the call again.

God did call again, and the boy responded as Eli had instructed. I wonder if Samuel had any expectations of what he might hear that night or if he was surprised to learn that the Lord planned to fulfill the Divine threats made against Eli and his family for their abuse of priestly duties, dishonoring the God they were to serve.

Samuel listened and then went back to sleep. In the morning, he had the courage to answer Eli’s question about what the Lord had said, and Eli had the humility to accept it. Samuel had spoken and been heard as the prophet God made him to be.

Scripture provides no definite age for Samuel at the time of this call. He is called “a boy.” He was the son of Hannah, a faithful woman embittered by long years of barrenness and the derision she suffered as a result. While on her family’s annual pilgrimage to the shrine at Shiloh, she laid her anguish before the Lord, weeping and imploring God to give her a male child. If so blessed, she vowed to give him to God’s service for as long as he lived. She had a son and true to her word, when he was of appropriate age, Hannah brought him to Shiloh and left him in Eli’s care.

No matter Samuel’s age, this story of a youth hearing and responding whole-heartedly to the call of God is captivating and is one of my favorites. How had Samuel become so “wide awake,” so attentive and receptive to God?

Photo: Mary van Balen

Surely, as with all of us, his early years were formative. Growing up in a family of faith, nursed and nurtured by a mother who loved and trusted God, and living in the shadow of the ark of God in the tabernacle in Shiloh must have influenced his relationship with the Holy One.

But, Samuel’s life sounds rosier than it was. (Don’t we often idealize the lives of others in comparison with our own?). Remember, his father had two wives who didn’t get along, and Eli and his sons were not faithful to the demands and requirements of their priestly ministry.

In the midst of it all, Samuel was able to attend to the call of God. He was a contemplative, aware of the Presence within and without, in the good and not so good, as he went about his duties. He must have taken time for solitude, resting in God and deepening his ability to hear and recognize the Holy Mystery that was the Source of his life and identity.

No matter the differences in time and circumstance between our lives and Samuel’s, we share the call to be people of prayer and to grow in our relationship with God. God has placed the gift of Divine Self in every one of us. Identifying that bit of Divinity and living into it, becoming the reflection of God we are made to be and remaining faithful to it is our life task. That’s why the story of young Samuel grabs our hearts: it is the story of us all.

Photo: Kathryn Holt

As 2018 unfolds, we can choose practices that will deepen our openness and help us “pay attention.” In the midst of life’s busyness, suffering, and challenges, we can take time to be still and rest in God, hearing God’s call however it comes. We can allow the Holy Mystery dwelling within to move and transform us and so, participate in transforming the world. We can say, like Samuel, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

© 2018 Mary van Balen

Celebrating Alabama

Celebrating Alabama

This morning I stopped at my favorite local stop for tea, quiche and scones—The Cambridge Tea House—for quiche and an order of bacon.

“I’m celebrating Alabama,” I said. The cashier smiled. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Home, I read the paper’s headline story and enjoyed my breakfast while perusing The Washington Post’s
Preliminary exit poll results: How different groups voted in Alabama.”  It’s worth a look. And before I hurry off to work, I have to say “Thank you,” to the Black Alabamian voters for overwhelmingly casting their ballots for Doug Jones. The number of women who voted for Moore baffle me. Well, to be honest, anyone who voted for Moore baffle me at some level.

Still, it’s a victory to savor. The former U.S. attorney who successfully prosecuted two of the Ku Klux Klansmen who bombed the small church in Birmingham in 1963 bested the outspoken, bigoted Roy Moore. After work, I’ll take a closer look at the Washington Post’s informative infographics. For now, I’m walking with a little spring in my step.

The “Both/And” of our Our Faith

The “Both/And” of our Our Faith

Photos: Mary van Balen
Weaving in progress at the Columbus Museum of Art 12 2017

Originally published in The Catholic Times, December 10, 2017

I looked up the word “advenio” in my old Latin dictionary and found that depending on how it’s used, the verb can mean “to draw near” or “to arrive.”  The noun, “adventus” is also translated as either “approach” or “arrival.” The season of Advent encompasses both. We wait. We celebrate what has already come. It’s the “both/and” of our faith. God is coming. God is already here.

During this season, we ponder that mystery and our participation in it. Liturgical readings are one place to start. For example, the first week of Advent is filled with passages from what is often called “First Isaiah” and provides glorious images of the kingdom to come: people from all nations streaming up the mountain of God, desiring to learn and walk in God’s ways; a kingdom where all live together in peace; great feasts where God provides rich food and choice wine for everyone.

Isaiah paints more pictures: justice for the poor and vulnerable, abundant harvests, broad pastures and running streams. He shows us a God who does not judge by appearances and who responds immediately to the people’s cries. These images were proclaimed in an eighth century BCE Judah that bears a resemblance to our current world situation. The Introduction to Isaiah in the Saint Mary’s Press College Study Bible describes the wealthy getting richer at the expense of the poor and nations posturing for war.

Despite the sins of the people, Isaiah’s prophecies of the Holy One’s faithfulness and the eventual arrival of a messianic king provided hope along with the calls for repentance to those who heard them. Isaiah’s words provide hope for us too, reminding us that God is merciful as well as just, and that with Grace, dark times that challenge and demand we heed God’s word will not last forever.

Close up of a finished section of a weaving in progress at the Columbus Museum of Art. Bright colors and a variety of materials

Advent gospels speak of God already come. They tell not only the story of John the Baptist and how Jesus was born into our world through the faith and willingness of a young Jewish girl.  They also tell of his public ministry, proclaiming God’s kingdom with words and actions. He healed the sick, confronted those in positons of power, and showed compassion for the poor and struggling. When asked what was most important, he replied it was love—love of God, self, and neighbor.

Jesus was open to surprise, amazed at the deep faith coming not from the Israelites, but from “the other”—a centurion. Echoing Isaiah, Jesus told his followers that they’d be sharing the heavenly banquet with people they mightn’t have expected, coming from east and west.

He relied on others to share in his work. When the huge crowd that had been listening to him for days needed to be fed, Jesus asked first that those present share what they had. Then he blessed it. Before sending his disciples out to spread the good news, he lamented that there was much work to be done and few to do it.

Yes, God is already here, and has been since before time as we know it began. Yet, “God is coming.” The events in our world, far from echoing the visions of Isaiah or the example of Jesus, speak of the need for this coming. The poor and vulnerable, so close to Jesus’ heart, are still abused and overlooked by those grasping for power and wealth. Nations continue to prepare for and to wage war. We are far from beating swords into plowshares.

Jesus knew that being faithful to the commandment of love can bring suffering and death in a world unwilling to accept it. After his death and resurrection, he sent the Spirit who dwells within each of us and in every bit of creation. We are part of the “both/and,” the coming” and the “already here.”

How do we live in the tension of this mystery? How do we join in God’s work today? How do we live in dark times and still have both faith in God-with-us and hope in God- to-come? Perhaps, during Advent we can take quiet time to listen for the Spirit that lives in our hearts. To become aware of our part giving birth to that bit of divinity that has been shared with us and that the world sorely needs. We are not only graced with the Presence of God with us, we are called to do our part in birthing the God who is yet to come.

© 2017 Mary van Balen

 

Thankful for the Gift of Presence

Thankful for the Gift of Presence

Originally published in The Catholic Times November 12, 2017

November 9 is the feast of the dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome, the official church of the Pope. The Mass readings for that day, not surprisingly, have to do with temples of one sort or another. The first reading is from Ezekiel 47, but let’s start a bit earlier in the book.

Rendering of Ezekiel's temple by Henery Sulley (1845-1940)

Ezekiel’s temple by Henery Sulley (1845-1940) Public Domain

In chapters 40-48 of Ezekiel, the prophet describes a vision where God transports him to a high mountain in Israel, and an angel gives him a tour of a new city. The vision is long and full of details: precise measurements of walls, inner courts, outer courts, door jambs, and Temple outbuildings, as well as the new Temple itself. Ezekiel witnesses the glory of God returning to fill the Temple, and God tells him that it again will be the Divine dwelling place in the midst of the people.

In addition to seeing the physical structures, Ezekiel learns the rules for those who serve in the Temple, how land is to be appropriated, how feasts are to be observed, and a list of protocols and procedures for Temple worship and sacrifices and that would make a Royal event planner’s head spin.

As I read these verses, I was glad it was Ezekiel and not me who had been instructed to remember every detail so he could share them with the exiled Israelites when he returned to them in Babylon. They had pretty much lost hope. Jerusalem had fallen, and despite the prophet’s valiant efforts to help them recognize that its destruction was imminent, many had clung to the illusion that Jerusalem would survive and they would go back home, resuming life as usual. I can identify. It’s a human tendency to ignore signs that portend the coming of something calamitous or the slow creep of something bad.

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

Next comes the description of the spring in the Temple. That’s the first reading for November 9. It’s abbreviated in the lectionary (To get the full effect, I suggest reading all the first twelve verses.), but it’s still a magnificent image.  A stream begins in the Temple, runs under the threshold, and flows to the Dead sea, swelling into a river too deep for anyone to cross.

When it reaches the sea, it makes the salt water fresh, teeming with all kinds of fish and water creatures. People flock there with nets. Wherever the river flows, it brings life and healing. Trees along its bank produce new, delicious fruit every month. Even their leaves are medicinal.  All this because it is God’s life flowing from the sanctuary.

When I read these words, I wanted to jump in! I wanted to splash through the river and sink beneath the water, let it do its healing, and then burst up through the surface full of hope, energy, and joy, free of the worries and concerns that fill my heart. Perhaps that’s how the Israelites felt when they listened to Ezekiel recount the story.

The good news is that God doesn’t dwell in temples or churches. Paul writes to the Corinthians, and to us, that we are the temples of God. (1 Cor 3, 16-17) The Spirit lives in each of us, neighbor and stranger alike. The glorious, healing, life-giving Presence that Ezekiel sees coming from the Temple, flows in and through all, gracing the people and places it touches. We don’t have to look for that river streaming down from the city on a hill; that “river” is everywhere. We can sink into Holy Presence wherever we are. Incarnation means God has entered into the matter of creation. We are immersed in that Presence whether we realize it or not. Open to it, Grace transforms us and all it touches. We can move into our deepest center and meet God there.

God is truly with us: strength in our struggles, joy in our celebrations, hope when we are tempted to despair. God walks with us when we are afraid, offers rest when we have worn ourselves out, waits when we are too busy to notice, fills what is empty, mourns with us in our grief, and sits with us when we don’t know what else to do.

The last words in Ezekiel, naming the new city, sum up this wondrous reality: “The name of the City shall henceforth be ‘The Lord is here.’” (48, 35)

© 2017 Mary van Balen

Doing What We Have Learned

Doing What We Have Learned

Abstract painting of people of all colors embracing

Painting by Richard Duarte Brown

Originally published in The Catholic Times  Oct. 8, 2017

Perhaps it’s because I’m weary of the divisive speech that is becoming more commonplace in our country and of the racism and ignorance of the “other” that undergird it. Maybe it’s hearing hateful comments, seeing intolerance, and recognizing that choices are being made to stoke fear and anger rather that to encourage true listening and dialogue. It’s these things and more that make me read and reread Paul’s words this Sunday, healing, like balm on an open sore:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4, 8)

A friend at work gave me a flyer about a unity celebration being held at a local Episcopal church that Sunday evening. I’m glad I went. It was something gracious and lovely that reminded me of the many good people who, in ways large and small, are being love in the world.

A woman opened the celebration with a drum call to gather everyone, including the ancestors. I thought of my parents. Of people who have gone before, working for civil rights. I thought of the communion of saints.

The rector welcomed us and read “Blessing When the World is Ending” by Jan Richardson. It finishes on a hopeful note:

This blessing/will not fix you,/will not mend you,/ will not give you/false comfort;/it will not talk to you/about one door opening/when another one closes./ It will simply/sit beside you/among the shards/and gently turn your face/toward the direction/from which the light/will come,/gathering itself/about you/as the world begins/again.

A young Syrian refugee, 13 when she arrived speaking no English, 17 now, shared her powerful poetry. A woman pastor reminded us that while we look different on the outside, we are the same on the inside and pointed out the fact that human beings are made with two ears and one tongue, perhaps indicating we should listen more and talk less.

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

Two young women in flowing white dresses gracefully danced their prayer to the One we can’t live without, expressing with their movements the prayer in my heart. An Imam spoke of Islam and respect for all prophets. We listened and learned.

A folksinger led us in “We shall not be moved,” a song loosely based on verses from Jerimiah about one who is like a tree firmly planted by the water surviving drought and yielding fruit. A young girl called out that we should sing for peace. And we did.

A Jewish rabbi considered that we have many names the for same Holy One. She spoke of the prophets of old and wondered about today’s prophets. About being prophets and being bold.

A soloist shook the rafters and sang about God breathing on us, and I felt the Spirit-breath.

A community organizer pulled wisdom from each presentation and put them into questions for us to ponder.

Afterwards, we shared food, listened to stories, and wondered why all churches don’t have evenings like this.

Paul’s final words in that verse from Philippians—Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you—prompted me to consider that what we learn from Paul, he learned from Jesus. What have I learned and heard and seen in Jesus that transforms me?

painting: The Good van Gogh Samaritan, by Vincent

The Good Samaritan by Vincent van Gogh

In the gospels, I have learned that love, not power, is important. That one’s life doesn’t consist of possessions. That everyone is my neighbor, and I must take care of them. I have seen Jesus heal the sick, feed the hungry, hang out with those on the margins, and eat with outcasts. He was welcoming, patient, and merciful. He was a man of prayer. On his last night on earth he prayed “…that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me…” I watched Jesus wash his disciples’ feet and instruct them to do the same. He spoke truth to power, faithfully lived that truth, and was murdered for it.

I heard him say that whatever we do to the least among us, we do to him. And when it came right down to it, when someone asked him what was most important, he had two things to say: Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself.

These are the things we need to keep on doing, each of us bringing the God of peace who dwells in us into our times and places. Through all people of peace, God transforms the world.

© 2017 Mary van Balen

Farewell Cassini, Thank you NASA

Farewell Cassini, Thank you NASA

Cassini’s trajectory into Saturn

Even though it was a day off, I woke at 6:45, pulled on my old black t-shirt with the solar system silkscreened half on the front, half on the back. It’s seen eclipses and meteor showers. It would bid farewell to the Cassini spacecraft on Friday morning, September 15.

In the kitchen, I began preparing food for a daughter’s visit while watching NASA TV’s coverage of the final half-hour of the Cassini mission.

Ligeia Mare – Sea on Titan (False color)

I listened to scientists sharing their thoughts as Cassini sped towards its fiery end in Saturn’s atmosphere. My iPad, sitting on top of the microwave, streamed live interviews with project scientists and engineers, some of whom had spent entire careers working on the Cassini mission. There were images of Saturn and its largest moon, Titan, with methane-rich lakes and rivers. Computer-generated graphics showed Cassini’s 22 dives into the dark space between Saturn and its rings as well as how the spacecraft would meet its end by entering the atmosphere and burning up.

Cassini’s Grand Finale orbits

I was glad making chili didn’t require much attention because mine was on the screen. The images were mesmerizing. (NASA has made an eBook of some of those images and it’s available to download here.)

While chopping onions and green peppers, I learned more about the unexpected length and scientific bounty of this mission as well as the team’s ability to make changes in orbits and trajectories to take advantage of surprise discoveries almost 900 million miles away.

Narrow jets of gas and vapor from Saturn’s moon Enceladus

For example, when geysers of vapor were found spewing out of the south pole of Saturn’s tiny moon, Enceladus, the spacecraft actually flew through them and analyzed the composition, finding ice particles, water vapor and organic chemicals. Cassini also determined that beneath the moon’s icy surface sloshes an ocean of salty water.

For the last ten minutes of the broadcast, I turned my full attention to the screen. Even from my kitchen, I wanted to be one of the thousands, maybe millions around the world, waiting for that last signal from Cassini.

Where Cassini entered Saturn’s atmosphere

Through the commentary of those who had worked most closely with it from the beginning, the spacecraft had taken on an anthropomorphic quality, doing everything it had been asked to do, right down to the last images sent as it struggled against Saturn’s atmosphere.

The vastness and variety of creation overwhelmed me as the final signals faded. In my kitchen, chili was simmering. On Titan, methane rivers flowed. Saturn’s majestic rings, better understood, still grace our night skies.

Human imagination and wonder have paired with knowledge and skill to give us an extraordinary window into the universe. From ancient times, human beings have marveled at the night sky. Never before have we had such a view.

Saturn from Cassini spacecraftMy response is gratitude for those who have worked so long and hard to provide it. And to bend my knee before the One who creates it. I join with the ancient psalmist in prayer: The heavens proclaim the glory of God/and the firmament shows forth the work of his hands./Day unto day takes up the story/and night unto night makes know the message./ No speech, no word, no voice is heard/yet their span goes forth through all the earth,/their words to the utmost bounds of the world.

 

All images are from NASA

 

Cassini 12 Years at Saturn

The Cassini-Huygens mission was a joint effort of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency, Agenzia Spaziale Italiana. Many other countries were involved in the manufacturing of components.

What’s NASA doing next? Read this NYT article for some tantalizing descriptions of missions already on the calendar.

NASA Cassini at Saturn 

 

Solar Eclipse II: A Reflection

Solar Eclipse II: A Reflection

NASA photograph of the total solar eclipse taken at Oregon State Fairgrounds by Dominic Hart

PHOTO: NASA taken by Dominic Hart at the Oregon State Fairgrounds August 21, 2017

When the eclipse reached totality, the dramatic appearance of the sun’s corona took the crowds collective breath away—stunning and larger than I had imagined it would be. Was it the blackness of the moon that made the corona look so bright, or the brightness of the corona that made the moon’s darkness absolute, like a hole in the sky looking into emptiness?

“The corona’s always there,” I thought, “just overpowered by the sun’s brilliance.”

Only darkness could reveal the light.

Darkness is often used to describe something to be avoided or escaped. It’s a metaphor for what’s wrong in our world or in us. It’s where we don’t want to be. We read about moving from darkness into light, and the spiritual journey is often described that way.

But the eclipse reminded me that when it comes to darkness, it’s not so clear cut. Darkness has an important role to play in creation, in life, and in spiritual deepening.

Years ago, a close friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer. A few weeks later, after having had an inconclusive mammogram, I was called back for a second screening. While waiting for the appointment, I thought a lot about cancer and dying, imagining the worst: Would I see my children grow to adulthood? How well would I deal with the pain and process of treatment? How would it affect my family and friends? Was I ready to face death? And how was my relationship with God?

The morning of the appointment was clear and bright. The prospect of death had sharpened my senses, and on the way to the imaging facility, I noticed everything: the coolness of the air, the color of leaves, the beauty of the city, the crisp, dark shadows on the buildings that made edges sharp and shapes distinct. Without the shadows, everything would blend into everything else. “Maybe that’s what’s meant by ‘the shadow of death,’” I pondered. “It provides definition, bringing life into focus.”

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

The relationship between darkness and light is a constant theme in literature and art. It runs through Scripture. Phrases like “a light that darkness could not overcome” or “calling you out of the darkness into the light” quickly come to mind, portraying “darkness” as evil. But there are others.

The creation story starts out in chaos. God then separates light from darkness suggesting both were present—light in darkness, darkness in light—to make day and night. Neither were banished. Life needs both to work. And God said it was all very good.

In Exodus, God was in the pillar of cloud as well as the pillar of fire when leading the Hebrews out of Egypt, and when Moses met the Holy One face to face, the people hung back and watched from the light as Moses entered the thick, dark cloud because that’s where God was.

Psalm 139 says: “Darkness is not dark for you, and night shines as the day. Darkness and light are but one.”

God is in both.

The great mystics speak of darkness as a necessary part of the journey. It helps us see what is otherwise missed—like the corona that’s present but invisible. Darkness invites us to reach deeper, to look intently, to accept ourselves as we are. And in the darkest times, we may learn how to sit with God in the night while the Holy Mystery does the work we are unable to do ourselves.

Photo Credit: NASA/Carla Thomas

The coming together of darkness and light during the eclipse was magnificently beautiful, a profound experience that will remain for me an image of the power of darkness to illumine the spiritual journey—a metaphor of the grace found in embracing our darkness as well as our light, and encountering God there.

© 2017 Mary van Balen

A Confluence of Events

A Confluence of Events

Originally published in the Catholic Times September 10, 2017

Sometimes disparate events come together, touching a common place in my heart. Only after reflection and usually some writing, do I understand their connection and what they are saying.

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White supremacists clash with police (36421659232)

By Evan Nesterak

Protests and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the responses that followed uncovered what we’d rather avoid. Racism, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy raised their ugly heads reminding us that, no matter what we thought or what we want to believe, anger and hatred based on race, ethnicity, and fear of the “other” remain a blight on our country’s soul.

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Pencil drawing of Blessed Fredric Ozanam

Blessed Fredric Ozanam

Perusing this week’s liturgical calendar, I discovered Blessed Fredric Ozanam (1813-1853). He moved to Paris at 18 to study at the Sorbonne. Conditions were wretched for the poor and working class. As a result of its old and public alliances with the aristocracy, the Catholic Church was attacked by intellectuals as oppressive and harmful. Ozanam had a different view. The Church was more than its hierarchy. It was all, clerics and lay alike, and he understood service to the poor as central to the call to discipleship. Actions must accompany words. He organized debates and argued that the Catholic Church had brought much good to the world.

There is a story that during one of these debates, when challenged to show what the Church was doing to help the poor and suffering in Paris, he had no answer. A few days later, Ozanam gathered a small group of Catholic students and together they began what would become the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. They were helped by Sister Rosalie Rendu who served the destitute in the Mouffetard area of Paris and insisted that the young students visit them in their homes and learn what was truly needed.

painintg of Saint Peter Claver surrounded by African slaves

Saint Peter Claver

I read about St. Peter Claver (1581-1654), a Spanish Jesuit who found his life’s work in Cartagena, a hub of slave trade, in what is now Columbia. When slave ships arrived, he managed to get into the hold and minister to them with food, water, and medicine.

“Deeds come first, then words,” he said.

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NASA photograph of the total solar eclipse taken at Oregon State Fairgrounds by Dominic Hart

PHOTO: NASA

I joined two daughters, a friend, and other family to experience the eclipse in Columbia, South Carolina. We gathered with others in a school’s athletic field. The mood was festive and people moved in and out of the green space to observe the moon sliding in front of the sun. But, with fifteen minutes to go, they found a spot, put on eclipse glasses, and didn’t move.

When totality arrived, glasses came off. People clapped, shouted, cried, or stood in awed silence as the black disk of the moon covered the sun, revealing its brilliant corona. For those two minutes and thirty seconds, we were one people, small creatures on a single planet in the vast universe.

Of course, it didn’t last. Totality passed. Eventually people picked up their chairs and coolers and walked home or to their cars. The one family became tribes again.

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Photo of poet Nikki Giovanni

Nikki Giovanni

Krista Tippett’s On Being podcast featured an interview with poet Nikki Giovanni. Tippett describes her as a “revolutionary poet in the Black Arts Movement that nourished civil rights.” Now in her seventies, Giovanni is joyfully alive, a professor at Virginia Tech, and still writing.

“…race was a bad idea 200 years ago, 300 years ago. It’s a ridiculous idea today,” she said in the interview. “Hatred was a bad idea, and it’s a ridiculous idea today. We’re on the third planet from the yellow sun. We have got to come together to see—and how to make sense out of this…How do we find a way to make the best of us?”

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How indeed. How to root out hate and anger? How to stand with the marginalized and oppressed? How to bring Love into this time?

Ozanam, Rendu, and Claver saw what is often forgotten: Every person is a child of God deserving respect and love. They responded to physical needs as well as spiritual ones; actions accompany words. We are called to do the same, recognizing all are God’s people—Black, White, Latino, Indigenous people, refugees, LGBT, Jews, Muslims, prisoners, the poor. All one family on this planet. No exceptions. As Giovanni said, there is no place to go but forward. We do what we can. We love. We speak the truth we have been given. Bit by bit, we let go of what separates us and hold on to what binds us together. We listen. We pray. Like Mary, honored this week with the feast of The Nativity of Mary, we are called to birth Christ into the world.

© 2017 Mary van Balen

Solar Eclipse I: The Experience

Solar Eclipse I: The Experience

After a flight into Maryland and a 625-mile drive to Columbia, South Carolina, I was ready to experience the total solar eclipse on August 21 with two of my daughters, a friend, and extended family. A long trip that was more than worth every mile.

Predictions of thunderstorms at our intended viewing site initiated a quick change of plans. Instead of driving from our hotel in Murrells Inlet to nearby Georgetown, we went to Columbia and met with my niece and her family who were hoping for good weather there for the event.

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

By 12:45 pm we headed to a nearby middle school with a large, open athletic field, and set up our chairs under the shade of a covered walkway. Slowly more people arrived with chairs and pop-up canopies. Some brought picnic lunches and spread blankets under the few trees edging the field. Others tossed baseballs or threw Frisbees, or just sat and chatted.

When first contact occurred at 1:29, everyone stopped what they were doing, put on their eclipse glasses, and watched as the black moon began to slide over the sun. We moved in and out of the field for the next hour mesmerized by the beauty, marveling at the power of the sun that even as it was disappearing behind the moon, kept the air hot and the light bright.

sky during totality

PHOTO: Mary van Balen Darkening sky during the totality

Row of people sitting in chairs holding their eclipse glasses on and gazing at the sky

 

By 2:30, voices lowered, balls and frisbees were forgotten. The temperature had dropped and the sky was darkening.

People moved into the field. Standing or sitting, you could feel the crowd holding it’s breath.

Excitement built as the sliver of sun became thinner, thinner, and suddenly my glasses went black. I pulled them off and saw the sun’s corona blazing out behind the black moon.

NASA photograph of the total solar eclipse taken at Oregon State Fairgrounds by Dominic Hart

PHOTO: NASA taken by Dominic Hart at the Oregon State Fairgrounds August 21, 2017

People applauded, shouted, gasped, laughed, and cried. Some stood in awed silence before the magnificent sight. I did them all and hugged my daughters, grateful to be sharing the moment with them. Words can’t communicate the experience. It was profoundly moving, stirring something  elemental deep within.

Together, the sun and moon, spoke truth: Remember, you are part of something beyond anything you can imagine; you are creatures on a tiny planet in the vast universe.

For two minutes and thirty seconds we were one people, standing together, not in Columubia, not in the United States, but on earth. Boundaries and current national and worldwide issues lost their power to divide. For two minutes and thirty seconds.

Then it was over. Some lingered to watch the moon complete its transverse of the sun. Eventually, people carried their chairs and coolers  back to their cars and left.

Driving long hours back to our hotel, we shared our thoughts. Words continued to fall short, though we tried: amazing, awesome, unbelievable, overwhelming, beautiful, unforgettable, stunning….

In moments of silence, I wondered if the powerful event would change some who experienced it? Will we remember and embrace an expanded vision of who we are and how we live? Of this planet and the people we share it with? Of the Mystery who is the Source of all?