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

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

Saint Bonifacia’s Ordinary Way

Saint Bonifacia’s Ordinary Way

a photo of Saint Bonifacia Rodriguez y Castro S.S.J.Originally published in The Catholic Times Aug. 13, 2017

This week’s liturgical calendar celebrates the lives of three women saints: St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), St. Clare, and Saint Bonifacia Rodriguez y Castro. If you’re like me, you’re familiar with the first two. But who was the third, Saint Bonifacia?

Her memorial is listed as August 7, 8, or 9th, depending on where you look, but a little research provided an inspiring portrait of the woman. Bonifacia was born in 1837, the oldest of six children, to a poor couple in Salamanca, Spain. Her father was a tailor who worked in his shop at home. Bonifacia learned not only his craft, but she and her siblings also witnessed the deep faith of both parents, lived simply in their home and community.

Her father died when she was fifteen, and Bonifacia began working for others outside her home. Eventually, she set up a shop in the family home, making and selling cords, lace, and other trimmings to support herself and her mother. Inspired by the quiet life of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, she saw her home and shop as a little Nazareth where work and prayer were intertwined. Along with her mother, Bonifacia made daily visits to a nearby Jesuit-run church.

Other young women, attracted to her and her way of life, began to gather at her home on Sunday’s and feast days, finding a safe place to gather and support one another with prayer and Scripture, listening and encouraging as women do. The house-shop became a safe haven for women to work and pray.

Though Bonifacia longed to become a Dominican, the Jesuit priest at her church, Francisco Javier Butiña y Hospital (her spiritual director), had another idea. His deep concern for the plight of post Industrial Revolution factory workers and respect for the path to holiness through ordinary work resonated with Bonifacia. He suggested that together they establish a congregation to protect the women workers and promote a spirituality that embraced manual work as a way to holiness, not an impediment. The congregation became known as the Servants of Saint Joseph.

This was a new form for a women’s congregation, and while supported by some and by the local bishop at the time of its foundation, it later met with resistance from those more comfortable with women in convents. Like many before her, she suffered for her vision and determination to remain faithful to it.

As Saint John Paul II said in his homily at her beatification, “It was a form of religious life too daring not to have opposition. Immediately it was attacked by the then traditional diocesan clergy of Salamanca who does not grasp the evangelical depth of this form of life which is very close to the world of work.”

While this column doesn’t provide space to tell all her story, I can emphasize the importance her life and vision have for us today. Despite Vatican II’s insistence that the call to holiness is given to everyone and is found in all walks of life, many church faithful, clergy and lay alike, still think the path to sanctity is somehow separate from ordinary life. Holiness is seen best pursued in convents, monasteries, or rectories. Or at least in occupations connected with church or overtly religious activities.

Bonifacia knew better. Through prayer and reflection, she recognized God’s call deep within and trusted it, remaining faithful when others opposed and mistreated her. It’s easy to doubt the word that God speaks in our hearts, the call that directs us to bring God into the world in a way uniquely given to each of us, right where we are.

Bonifacia also knew that we don’t walk the path to God alone. We walk together. As she said, “We should be all for all, following Jesus.”  But trusting God’s indwelling in the “other” is a challenge, especially if the “other” looks different than we do, speaks a different language, or has views different than our own. Despite its difficulty, this ordinary path transforms the world by our taking God’s Presence into it.

The world needs people committed to this simple way of prayer and bringing God we come to know within into the streets and workplaces. Not by heavy handed evangelizing and dogma, but by living with love and joy, responding to the needs of those we encounter. By truly listening to “others,” open to recognize and receive God who dwells in their hearts. And like Bonifacia, by having courage to speak our truth to power. To do something different in familiar places.

©2017 Mary van Balen

Fountain Fullness and Good Stewardship

Fountain Fullness and Good Stewardship

éFirst published in The Catholic Times  July 16, 2017 issue

Close up of fountain at the Vatican

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

And since the nature of goodness is to diffuse itself…the Father is the fountain-fullness of goodness.        Ilia Delio

Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights.      Pope Francis

Standing Rock is everywhere.   Chief Arvol Looking Horse

 

Water has been on my mind. As Ilia Delio, O.S.F. writes in Simply Bonaventure: An Introduction to His Life, Thought, and Writing, the 13th century saint whose feast we celebrate on July 15 referred to the first principle of the Godhead as the fountain-fullness of goodness. (Bonaventure referred to this self-diffusive Goodness as “Father,” not in a biological manner, but in the sense that God is generative, Delio explains.)

I first heard this phrase over fifteen years ago while attending a lecture by Delio. When she made time for questions, I was unable to formulate any but sat in silence allowing some of the imagery and expansive thought she presented to find a place within me. The image of God as infinite fountain-fullness, pouring out Divine self, has always remained.

Niagra Falls

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

I’ve thought of it while standing at Niagara Falls, getting soaked in a rainstorm, or while drinking a refreshing glass of water: God, ever-flowing outward, creating and sustaining all.

In his encyclical, Laudato Si’, from the conviction that “…everything in the world is connected…” Pope Francis reminds us that fresh drinking water holds primary importance because “… it is indispensable for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.” As with the effects of other instances of environmental degradation, the lack of clean water and the consequences of that fall most heavily upon the poor.

He addresses the people of the world, calling for a change of lifestyles of consumption and immediate gratification into lifestyles of sacrifice and sharing. Pope Francis quotes Patriarch Bartholomew’s eloquent words saying we all need to repent since in some ways we have all harmed the planet.

That realization deepened for me when I recently viewed a water bill for my apartment. The amount of water used was surprising.

I began to notice that water usually runs while I wash my hands and brush my teeth. Without a dishwasher, I often fill the sink with soapy water, even when only a few plates and glassed need cleaned. As weeks passed, water and my consumption of it became an exercise in mindfulness. A big water drinker, I usually find two or three half-filled glasses on tables or counters at bedtime. No longer dumped down the drain, the extra now waters my plants. In a month’s time, my water use decreased by half.

Who would’ve thought that such small efforts would make a difference? Patriarch Bartholomew realized that we all “generate small ecological damage.” Some is unavoidable; some is not.

Water came to mind again this week when a longtime friend sent a copy of an article published in the June 26 issue of America Magazine. “The Spirituality of Standing Rock: Activists see a moral imperative for protecting our water” by Eileen Markey begins with the historic gathering of Native Americans and their supporters from around the globe at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota to prayerfully protest the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline under their water supply.

“Water is life,” the women said. While oil now flows beneath their land, the stand to protect the environment, particularly the water, continues as groups and individuals across the country carry on the protests, calling for action from governments, corporations, groups, and individuals. The setback at Standing Rock was not the end of the issue.

“Standing Rock is everywhere,” Lakota chief Arvol Looking Horse said in the article. Indeed, it is.

Summer, with its long spells of hot, dry days interspersed with sudden storms or a day or two of soft showers, is a good time to reflect on water and how we use it. To change wasteful habits. To stand with Pope Francis in his call to work together to move into lifestyles that reflect reverence for the earth and recognition of the importance of good stewardship, especially as it affects the poor. And it is a good time to join our voices with that of Saint Francis, in thanksgiving and in praise of the Creator, the Fountain-Fullenss, the source of all that is.

© 2017 Mary van Balen

Rain—An Icon of Grace

Rain—An Icon of Grace

A photo of rain falling on a stone wall

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

Originally published in The Catholic Times, May 14, 2017

Rain pelted the windows as I fell asleep one Friday night this spring. Thunder rumbled in the distance, occasionally exploding through the thick sky, rattling the window beside my bed. I’ve always loved thunder storms, especially at night when I have nothing else to do but listen and watch for lightning flashes that brighten the darkness for a moment or two.

When I awoke late the following morning, rain was still falling, and heavy clouds shuttered the sky making the house dark enough that I lit a candle for prayer time. Rain drops became my centering “word” as I tried to quiet my mind and simply sit with God. That’s never easy. Managing a minute or two out of twenty without thoughts crashing around in my head is a success. I trust the Holy One appreciates the effort.

But that Saturday morning, rain made a difference. After a while it became an icon of Grace, falling steadily on the world, replenishing Life’s Gift that flows through all creation. I sat for a long time, moving in and out of quiet, trying to be present enough that some of that Gift could find a place in me.

The image of Grace raining down on the world stayed with me all day. I remembered times of exhilaration, running out in a downpour, getting soaked, and tilting my head up towards the sky with my mouth open trying to taste the drops. I also remembered making mad dashes from car to door, trying to avoid rain altogether.

Saturday came and went, but as the new week moved along, the image raised questions. How eagerly do I embrace Grace given. Do I stand with arms outstretched and heart open? Do I let it drench me? Do I stop and listen, no matter where I am or what I’m doing? Do I welcome it in and let it flow out? Or am I too busy, too distracted by noise to hear?

If so, the morning rain said not to worry. Grace is always falling.

Photo of a heavy rain falling on waterlilies on lake at St. Johns

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

I remembered a few favorite scripture verses that speak about rain and God’s provident care:

For just as from the heavens/ the rain and snow come down/ And do not return there/ till they have watered the earth, /making it fertile and fruitful, /Given seed to those who sow/ and bread to those who eat, / so shall my word be/ that goes forth from my mouth;/ It shall not return to me void, /but shall do my will, /achieving the end for which I sent it.  Is 55, 10-11

These words bring hope that God’s Spirit, falling into my deepest places, flows through me as I go about my days, helping me do the work, knowingly or not, that I am made to do.

Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; / with the lyre make music to our God, /Who covers the heavens with clouds, / provides rain for the earth, / makes grass sprout on the mountains… Ps 147, 7-8

 How important to nurture a grateful spirit, to give thanks for the outpouring of Grace that never stops, recognized or not.

Let us know, let us strive to know the Lord; /whose coming is as certain as the dawn, /and whose judgement shines forth like the light of day! /The Lord will come to us like the rain/like spring rain that waters the earth. Hosea 6, 3

 Trusting that God’s coming “is as certain as the dawn” is difficult when the earth of our hearts is parched or when suffering and injustice in the world overwhelms. Concerns of the heart can tempt it to close in upon itself, to keep Grace running down the outside instead of pouring in.

I have a photo of a rainy afternoon outside the apartment I stayed in one summer during a writing workshop in Minnesota. I think I’ll make a print of it and keep close by—an icon of never-ending Grace and Presence.

©2017 Mary van Balen

We Walk Together

We Walk Together

The oil painting "Supper" by Joseph Hirsch shows twelve homeless men, shabbily dressed, sitting and eating at an lavishly set table.

“Supper” 1963-1964
Oil on canvas
Joseph Hirsch American 1910-1981
Columbus Museum of Art
Photo: Mary van Balen

Originally published in The Catholic Times, April 9, 2017

On Saturday, I had the unexpected pleasure of spending a few hours in the Columbus Museum of Art. My sister and I slowly moved from one gallery to another, savoring the opportunity to see the world and explore ideas through the eyes and souls of the artists. They “wake us up” to realities easily overlooked as we hurry through our day to day lives, or challenge us to see the world, others, and even ourselves from broadened perspectives.

A small white sign on the wall of a hallway between two larger exhibits proclaimed: “The Extra Ordinary.” It referred to displayed works made of old bricks, cardboard, and other common objects.

I took a closer look at the row of oil paintings of a water glass. The artist, Peter Dreher, had painted the same glass at different times of day and night for years. “What can change?” you might ask. Light. Reflected images. You’d be surprised what you discover by simply focusing on the lines and beauty of something that usually doesn’t get a second glance. Our lives are filled with opportunities to wonder at the creativity and grace evident in objects made by human hands or that are part of nature. “When was the last time you took a close look and really saw?” the artist seemed to be asking.

A room or two later, I stood in front of a painting by Joseph Hirsch titled “Supper.” Twelve men sitting around a long table, sharing food that included bread and wine immediately suggested the Last Supper. Images of Leonardo da Vinci’s mural of Jesus’ final meal with his apostles might spring to your mind, but this painting is different.

Instead of a white Jesus surrounded by men in flowing robes, twelve homeless men of various colors, unkempt and dressed in shabby jackets and coats, eat hungrily, drinking wine from goblets and lifting food to their mouths with silver forks.

No brightly colored clothing here. The men are dressed mostly in grays, blacks, and browns. The brightest things are on the table. A silver serving dish and coffee pot rest on a white table cloth beside serving bowls heaped with fruit and salad. Obvious at the front of the table sits a goblet of wine and a broken loaf of bread.

The contrast between the poverty of the men and the opulence before them is striking. It spoke to the truth that wealth in our country and the world is held by an increasingly small percentage of people while so many are without food or shelter or hope of finding it. I read the signage to learn when “Supper” was painted. It was finished in 1964. “…at about the same time that President Lyndon B. Johnson enacted laws and reforms known as the War on Poverty, designed to aid disadvantaged American communities.”

I counted the people again. Twelve. “Why didn’t Hirsch include a figure to represent Jesus?” I wondered. Gazing at the image, I slowly became aware of Jesus’ presence. No need to paint him. The Christ was there, dwelling in each of those men.

Before leaving, I read the rest of the sign. It ended by noting “…the relevance to the present day of Christian values of compassion and charity for the poor.” I would say “justice.”

As we move into liturgical celebrations of the Last Supper, Good Friday, and Easter, reflecting on this painting’s message could inform our prayer. In 2017, as in 1964, we examine our response to the call to follow Jesus through death to new life—to share God’s Love given to us.

Do we see that Love shining through creation? Do we see the risen Christ in our sisters and brothers? Do we recognize God dwelling in every human being regardless of color, ethnicity, gender, religious faith or lack of it?  Do we share what we have with the poor, the homeless, the immigrants and refugees who live in our neighborhoods and cities and around the globe? Do we foster love and acceptance with our speech as well as actions?

Jesus was God’s face in the world, and it is a face of Love and inclusion, leaving no one out—not Samaritans or gentiles, not women or children. There was no “other.”  We walk together in Christ.

©2017 Mary van Balen

A Time for Stories

A Time for Stories

Close up of springerle cookies

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

Originally published in The Catholic Times, February 12, 2017

On my way to work, I stopped at the Cambridge Tea House to buy a currant scone. The crusty outside is just sweet enough and surrounds a tender center filled with currants. No jam needed. I prefer mine just as they come out of the oven, and when I’m early, they’re still warm.

Waiting for the young woman at the counter to ring up the purchase, I noticed small packages of intricately stamped springerele cookies resting on a glass plate. My daughter and I bake a few hundred each Christmas. Ours are anise flavored and decorated with bells and angels, but these were smaller, almond flavored, and covered with flowers and hearts for Valentine’s Day.

“They’re beautiful,” I said as the tea house owner and baker emerged from the kitchen.

“A local woman makes them,” she volunteered. I picked up one of the clear bags for a closer look. “The recipe’s 150 years old.”

I wondered aloud if she used baker’s ammonia or some other leavening.

“What’s baker’s ammonia? the younger woman asked.

So began the story. I told them about baking springereles using an old family recipe from a friend of my mother. “Baker’s ammonia is used in many old recipes. I used to buy it at pharmacies, but it’s more difficult to find now. You can order it online.” I described our technique that evolved from using a traditional wooden board carved with designs that we pressed into the dough to our current biscuit cutter/cookie stamp routine.

“After we cut and stamp the cookies, we spread them over the counter to dry overnight. Baker’s ammonia is heat activated, so they form a crusty top that keeps the stamped impression crisp when it bakes.”

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

As the story unwound, the three of us stood still, caught up not only in my story, but in the personal stories it evoked in each of us. Images from deep heart-places, rising to the surface, pulling along sights, sounds, smells, and emotion as they broke into consciousness. In silence, we breathed stories.

We recognized them in each other’s eyes, memories both unique and the same: delight in the preparation and sharing of special foods with loved ones, anguish faced over steaming cups of tea and coffee, or reverence before moments of grace when the veil of ordinariness slipped away revealing the extraordinary that’s always present.

modern painting circle of five people in an embrace

Painting by Richard Duarte Brown

Motionless, we paused, heartened by our connection. There we were, members of one family, God’s beloved community.

We should give thanks for the humble story, for the telling that reminds us of the basic connection of all human beings. It isn’t “them and us” as some would have us believe. “Other” is a fiction. Really, at the core, we are much the same. How to remember this in times of division?

Sharing story is one way, the ancient sacrament as old as humanity. Sometimes the details are unfamiliar: Details of lives lived as a part of the minority or of the privileged majority; details of living in poverty or in wealth; details of raising children or living as a single person; details of enjoying good health or suffering physical or mental illness. The list is endless.

But, if we listen to the stories of people who at first glance are “not like us,” we recognize common threads: Courage. Fear. Love and need for it. Desire to care for our children. To have enough to eat. The search for meaning and self-expression, acceptance and reverence.

PHOTO: Mary van Balen Rev. Robert Graetz telling his story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and current civil rights issues to a class of adult learners in the Even Start Program and their guests

PHOTO: Mary van Balen
Rev. Robert Graetz telling his story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and current civil rights issues to a class of adult learners in the Even Start Program and their guests

There are many stories we need to hear today from people both within and outside our usual circles: stories of people who think like us and those who don’t. People dealing with uncertainties of jobs and homes. There are stories of refugees, undocumented immigrants, ethnic and racial minorities, indigenous people, LGBT people, those who are abused.

Their stories cry out to be heard. Sometimes stories are told in books like “Hidden Figures” and film like the movie “Lion.” An Oscar nominated documentary on James Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro,” was released last week, and from reviews I’ve read, it’s filled with stories that can help us better understand race in our country.

Jesus used the power of story, moving his listeners to open their hearts to the stranger, to follow his example, to love. Story has the power to break barriers, to unite, to give heart, to change history. Or, less lofty, to shine the warm light of common humanity on an ordinary morning trek to work.

©2017 Mary van Balen

 

The Call to Love, Right Where We Are

The Call to Love, Right Where We Are

Rita and Mom's hands

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

Originally published in The Catholic Times, January 7, 2017

I spent a nice, low-key last day of 2016. Ran a few errands. Mailed two packages. Share a leisurely lunch with a good friend who came back to my place for a few last Christmas cookies and conversation. As I write and wait for midnight, I hear one of my daughters and friend laughing in the living room, here for a few hours before heading out to a party. A nice, homey, New Year’s Eve.

I admit to looking forward to 2017 with some trepidation, more aware than usual of the uncertainties we face at home and around the world. The issues are not new, but carry an increased sense of urgency: civil rights, immigration, poverty, global warming, terrorism, war.

Over the holidays, a friend shared with me the trauma she is experiencing after returning from working on a documentary in the Holy Land. While she heard lots of talk of Bethlehem as Christmas approached, and the strains of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” filled the air, she was overcome by the suffering she witnessed in the modern occupied city of Bethlehem.

“Both Palestinians and Jewish Israelis, say, ‘There is no such thing as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder here because there is no Post, just traumatic stress disorder’,” she said.

Her experience of one small part of the world speaks to the fear and uncertainty of so many in the global “neighborhood.”

How do we move forward into this new year? As followers of the Christ, how do we bring the love and peace of God’s kingdom into the world? How do we live with hope?

Yesterday, I read the next-to-the-last-last chapter of the Rule of Saint Benedict which spoke of the “good zeal” of monastics: to show respect for the other, to seek what is better for others, to support one another, and to show patience and love. Above all, to love God.

In the face of great challenges, loving those we live with and encounter in our daily lives seems trivial. What difference can such small actions make?

In commentary following the passage from the Rule, Benedictine Joan Chittister speaks to Benedict’s insistence on listening for God’s voice in one another and in the present moment. She recounts a wisdom story from another tradition: A seeker asks the teacher how to reach Enlightenment. The answer is deceptively simple: No special time or place is required. No special way of listening or unique places to look. Being present to the moment, to the people around you, to the place where you are is what is needed. Enlightenment happens there.

painting: The Good van Gogh Samaritan, by Vincent

The Good Samaritan by Vincent van Gogh

Jesus in the gospels tells his followers that the Kingdom of God is now, in the moment, as well as coming. He said whatever we do for the least among us, we do for him. He invited us to live as he lived, present in the moment to his relationship with God and with neighbor. And Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, clearly shows who that neighbor is—everyone.

Why is hearing God’s voice and experiencing God in the moment and in others so difficult? Why is “Practicing the Presence of God,” as the 17th century Carmelite, Brother Lawrence taught, such a challenge? Reading his work of the same title, we realize being truly present to God in ordinary life is a human struggle, not unique to our time.

The temptation is to imagine, like the seeker in Joan’s story, that God is found in extraordinary places. That to participate in transforming the world with Divine Love requires dramatic action, and that only a few exceptionally “holy ones” are called to do so.

As we enter 2017, the temptation is to be overwhelmed and think our lives too small, our actions too insignificant to make a difference. Jesus tells us “not so.” The temptation is to look to others, more powerful, more “important” to do the work. Jesus turns that upside down, too. He called poor fisherman, women, and people on the fringes of society ordinary people, not the religious or political big-wigs of his day to bring Love into the world.

And Jesus assured us that we don’t act alone. Joined with the Source of all that is, our acts of love are part of the Divine Act of Love that confronts darkness and is not overcome. Here is the hope we carry into the new year. Be present. Be aware of God-with-us right where we are. And trust in the power of the Love that flows through us to transform the world.

© 2017 Mary van Balen

Drawing All into the Circle of Love

Drawing All into the Circle of Love

Advent wreath with taper and glass candelabra surroounded by shells, arrowhead, driftwood, and a feather.

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

 

Originally published in The Catholic Times  December 11,2016

After a lovely and unusual Thanksgiving weekend spent with my two sisters and their husbands, I was caught unawares by Advent. Oh, in a vague sort of way I knew it was coming, but I was busy with work, publishing a book, and cleaning the house for my company.

When they left on Saturday afternoon, I ran errands and fell asleep, stretched out on the couch. Then suddenly it was Sunday, and I had not prepared a wreath. Resisting the urge to run out and buy candles, I decided to use what was already around the house.

Over the years, my wreath has evolved into something decidedly untraditional. Forty years ago, inspired by Black Elk (a Lakota holy man who, I later learned, became a Catholic catechist), I sewed and beaded four tiny red leather pouches filled with a mixture of sage and sweet grass symbolic of kinnikinnick used by some Native Americans in their great peace pipes and in other rituals.

The pouches rested on four direction points of the wreath: North, East, South, and West. A feather, shells, and a small buffalo cut from leather also decorated the pine boughs, a reminder that God is the Creator of all things, and that all things are made holy by the Incarnation.

Eventually, allergies and bronchitis set off by aromatic resin and the mold that clung to the freshly cut pine necessitated its removal. I thought about artificial greenery but decided against it.

four vigil candles arranged on linen surrounded by tiny read leather pouches, feeather, shell, and other items for Advent wreathit

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

Instead, I used beeswax vigil candles arranged on a round linen doily or tray covered with a deep blue napkin. The little pouches, feather, shells, and buffalo remained. A stone from the shores of the Sea of Galilee, gift of a friend, became a regular addition. Once I added a bird’s nest and soft, dried pampas grass plumes. Everything belongs in this circle. We stand on holy ground.

This year, I found tucked in a drawer some beeswax candles from Burton Parish, the colonial Episcopalian church in Williamsburg, VA. The tapers would just fit into the two simple glass candelabra that my parents had used to decorate the table at their wedding reception.

I washed and dried the candle holders, remembering an old photo of my parents, their families, and friends gathered around a long table in Dad’s family home for the celebration. The candelabra would gather my family and the human family into the circle of my “wreath.”

Along with the usual items, a wooden frog from Thailand, a fossil scallop picked up along the York River under Super Moon’s shine, a smooth piece of chert from a Paris walkway, and an arrowhead found on a Cape Cod beach joined the circle.

All the earth sits with me as I light the candles and remember the mystery of Jesus walking with us. Each night my parents and ancestors sit with me as do the people who were here first and who struggle still to protect the land and water that sustain us all. I am reminded of the ages and ages of this earth, of the creatures that filled it. The plants and animals, the birds and the sea creatures. We are a small part of an unimaginably huge cosmos. God loves it all and entered into our little corner to show us just how much.

The words of Isaiah that appear throughout our Advent liturgies overflow with images of nature. Crooked paths made straight. Parched land exulting. Steppes rejoicing and blooming with abundant flowers. Enemies, the lion and the lamb, lying down together. An old stump that looks dead sprouts a green shoot. Things are not always what they appear to be.

Isaiah says God will not judge by appearance. God stands with the poor and stands for justice.

Glorious words.

Four beeswax vigil candles in glass holders, surrounded by birds nest and other natural objects used as an Advent wreath

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

I sit at my dining room table, looking at my “wreath” and longing for such a time. Advent tells me that time is already here. We celebrate Emanuel, God-with-us. Jesus draws the circle that encompasses all and invites us to join the work. He showed us how to live our lives, a part of God’s own, so the circle continues to grow in our time and place.

I sit at my dining room table, watching candle flames push away early morning darkness, and I have hope.

© 2016 Mary van Balen