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

Seeing Everything Shining Like the Sun

Seeing Everything Shining Like the Sun

Photo of a domed stained glass window In Church in Rome, Italy, depicting the universe.Originally published in The Catholic Times, November 12, 2016 issue

Liturgically speaking, November begins with celebrating the holy ones who have gone before and who live among us: the saints and the saints-becoming. Canonized or not, they are those who open our eyes to both the presence of God-with-Us and to the responsibility to reverence that Presence in how we live our lives.

What if we looked at this month through the eyes of the saints? Would we see things we usually overlook? Would we be moved to act in ways out of our ordinary routines?

Trees blazing with color will soon drop their leaves and stand starkly against winter skies. On some days, snow will cling to their branches and cover the ground. Beauty has many faces. Growth often happens deep within, out of sight. While autumn’s riot of color shouts, winter’s muted palette speaks in whispers. Silence guards the life that has withdrawn to the center, content to wait and gather strength.

The great contemplatives speak of encountering God within, spending silent time resting in the Sacred Presence. Often, though, in the midst of contemplative practice, nothing much seems to be going on other than distractions. When tempted to wonder where God is in those times, we can remember the winter trees and landscape where the mystery of life deepens unseen.

The saintly scientists invite us to encounter God in the ordinary and spectacular realities of the universe. St. Hildegard of Bingen living in the 12th century, wrote about ecology, natural science, and medicine. St. Albert the Great, whose feast we celebrate next week, was a philosopher and scholar recognized for his knowledge and writing not only about theology but also about the sciences including physics, and astronomy.

Watching the super moon rise on November 14 or gazing at the dance of the moon and planets can be worship.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest born in the late nineteenth century was a mystic and accomplished geologist and paleontologist. His vision of the evolutionary nature not only of matter but of spirit and his understanding of the Cosmic Christ continues to inspire today.

Looking with these saints helps us see not only the magnificence of creation, but also the connectedness of all things. We are a small part of a universe beyond imagining. From the perspective of such immensity we become aware of our place in the world, participants in Infinite Life. What happens to one affects us all.

The great challenges of our time require such a universal view. Pope Francis has emphasized our moral obligation to respond to protect the earth. He also calls us to be merciful and to create a culture of encounter with one another.

How many stories are told of saints who lived their lives serving the poor and marginalized, the sick and suffering? Elizabeth of Hungary, whose feast is also celebrated next week, was a queen and mother who gave herself so whole-heartedly to sharing her fortune with the poor and nursing the sick, that, when her husband died on the way to battle, she was thrown out into the street by his parents who were offended by her discipline of prayer and good works!

Monument to the Immigrant in New Orleans. A statue depicting a female muse whose flowing gown leads to family of four immigrants. By Franco Alessandrini (1944), American sculptor of New Orleans

Monument to the Immigrant. 1995 New Orleans by Franco Alessandrini (1944), American sculptor of New Orleans.
Dedicated to the courageous men and women who left their homeland seeking freedom, opportunity, and a better life in a new country.
Photo: Mary van Balen

Martin de Porres entered a Dominican monastery as a lowly lay helper, but spent much of his life using gifts for healing not only tending the monks, but also the poorest in his city of Lima, Peru.

Today as millions of refugees leave their homelands destroyed by wars and violence, looking for a safer place to live and raise their families, we do well to remember how these saints saw every person. St. Benedict instructed his monks to greet every stranger who came to the monastery door as Christ. Mother Teresa saw the face of Jesus in every dying person she lifted from the street. How do we see these people, fleeing for their lives? How do we welcome them when they arrive at our shores?

The Trappist monk Thomas Merton wondered at God dwelling within every person he saw at a busy intersection in Louisville, Kentucky: “…There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun!”

When we are able to see the hand of God in every speck of earth or distant star, to recognize the Holy Presence in others, or to trust the Indwelling in ourselves, we can pray for Grace so, like the holy ones who have gone before us, we will reverence the Sacred that is in our midst or knocking on our doors.

©2016 Mary van Balen

Where Grace is Found and Given Away

Where Grace is Found and Given Away

flowers in a vase, mug, and guitar sitting on a blue and white table cloth.Originally published in The Catholic Times, October 16, 2016

Yesterday I came home from work and picked the five remaining stems of tall, pink snapdragons and one red geranium. They fit perfectly into a vase purchased from a shop near the Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota. The dark green matte outer layer had been etched down to the pale terra cotta, creating the stair-step design that symbolizes the Black Hills, Paha Sapa, a holy place of the Lakota.

The Lakota came to mind, and the other Native Americans and supporters who gather with them in prayer and presence, again striving to protect their land, this time by protesting the construction of the Dakota pipeline.

Their struggle was one reason I needed flowers on my table last night and why I’ve stopped perusing New York Times headlines as part of my morning routine. The violence and suffering in the news is overwhelming.

Hatred, stoked by fear and ignorance, fills our national election politics. The voices of the marginalized  around the world—the poor, women, LGBT people, children, refugees, and others—are rarely heard. Glacial ice-melts and extreme weather patterns call for action to address global warming, but the will to pursue alternative energy sources and lifestyle changes is lacking. My heart was worn out.

So, I picked flowers. I brewed tea and poured it into a favorite mug made by Joan Lederman, who lives in Woods Hole, creating glazes with sediment collected from the ocean floor. My mug is part of her Earth Crust/Space Dust series, and a band of its glaze contains asteroid-laden dust from 65 million years ago. I rubbed the blue sea glass that fills the thumb well on the handle, sipped Lady Grey, and let my heart soak up beauty.

Next I pulled my guitar case out from under the bed where it’s rested undisturbed for a year. A thin stack of papers lay beneath the instrument. Old and yellowed, they were covered with song lyrics and chord notations written in my hand during the 60s and 70s. I remembered them all, and my fingers quickly found their places on the strings. I played and sang, listening to my younger self celebrating the glories of an October day or a patient, hopeful love.

I heard my weary heart calling for Grace and comfort from the wind, sun, and rain after learning of the sudden death of a college friend. Many of my songs danced with Divine Mystery found “within and without, above and below,” or gave melody to psalms. Singing for an hour, I sank my heart-roots deep into that Holy Presence.

When my unpracticed fingertips became sore, I returned the guitar to its case and picked up a friend’s newly released memoir, Harnessing Courage. Despite its serious topic (Laura Bratton was diagnosed with a retinal disease at the age of 9 that eventually took her sight.), the first pages made me laugh out loud, picturing her confident, three-year-old self remembering every ballet step and leading the other, stage struck toddlers through their first dance recital.

As night came, I remembered holy ones whose feasts fall on this week’s liturgical calendar, who persevered despite their world’s ills. With the courage to challenge the status quo, St. John XXIII threw open the windows of the Church to let in fresh air, trusting the Spirit to bring renewal.

St Teresa of Avila, the great Carmelite mystic, reformer and first woman to be declared a Doctor of the Church, struggled with illness, opposition, and an investigation by the Inquisition. She defined contemplative prayer simply as a close sharing between friends and frequent time spent alone with God who loves us.

And while Madeleine Delbrêl (born in France in 1904) isn’t declared a saint, Robert Ellsberg writes about her in Liturgical Press’s Give Us This Day reflection for October 13, the date of her death. She knew that holiness could be encountered in people’s everyday life. “Each tiny act is an extraordinary event, in which heaven is given to us, in which we are able to give heaven to others.”

That’s why surrounding myself with beauty, singing, and enjoying the gifts of others was just what I needed last night. It helped me descend to my center, resting in Healing Presence, finding Grace in the moment. God refreshes the heart and provides strength to be grateful for life that is given even in the midst of suffering. As John, Teresa, and Madeleine knew, we must trust and spend time with God in whatever ways deepen our relationship. Then we will have Spirit to share and can be part of the ongoing transformation of a wounded world.

© 2016 Mary van Balen

No One Can Say I Didn’t Sing

No One Can Say I Didn’t Sing

Photo of Carnegie Hall program for Florence Foster Jenkins

Carnegie Hall Program By Anonymous [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Originally published in The Catholic Times—September 10, 2016 issue

Inspiration comes from unexpected places, like a movie theater on a Saturday morning. The name Florence Foster Jenkins first came to my attention while listening to National Public Radio on WOSU. She was a wealthy woman, born in Pennsylvania in 1868, who loved music from an early age and who, in later life, embarked on a quest to become a professional singer. The catch was, well, she couldn’t sing.

Unsure what to expect, I settled into my seat and watched a most unusual story unfold. I was prepared to dislike Florence—a New York socialite who belonged to all the right clubs and moved in upper class social circles, someone who, I imagined could buy her way into anything she wanted. Indeed, she eventually did rent Carnegie Hall. To my surprise, something about Florence won my heart.

Avoiding movie details in case some of you plan to see it, I’ll share a few things I learned about her through a bit of research. She was born into a wealthy family but gave it all up to follow her passion. Her father wanted her to stay home, to become a wife and mother. She wanted to study piano in Europe. Disinherited, she held on to music through years of a failed marriage, illness, and other difficulties.

When her fortunes changed, she threw herself into New York society, music still central in her life. She was a great patron of the arts, contributing to many organizations, and the music club she founded benefited the Italian Red Cross, the Actors Fund, and Veterans Mountain Camp. Lavish operatic productions she sponsored provided well-paying jobs for young musicians at time when they were difficult to find.

Privileged, quirky, and flawed to be sure, some thought she was delusional. Florence lived in her own world, unaware of the discrepancy between the beautiful tones she heard when singing and what she sounded like to everyone else. Still, she was a woman who gave her all to what she loved and believed she was made to do: singing and promoting music. That’s the thought that stayed with me as I left the theater.

Maybe that’s what her fans loved and why they flocked to her concerts. Maybe that’s why today, only Judy Garland and the Beatles are the subject of an equal number of inquiries at Carnegie Hall. Here was a woman who remained true to herself, no matter the circumstances. She loved what she did and brought joy and pleasure to her fans while doing it.

The Magpie by Claude Monet 1869

The Magpie by Claude Monet 1869
PHOTO: Mary van Balen

As I scribbled notes in my journal, reflecting on her life, other thoughts appeared on the page. I noted the young boy in the gospel who offered up his few loaves and fishes when the huge crowd that had been listening to Jesus grew tired and hungry. Not much, but it with God’s blessing, it became enough. And what about the servants who invested the money they had been given by their master rather than burying it out of fear?

I wrote of artists with glorious talent whose paintings moved me to tears at the Musée d’Orsay and the simple string of paper cranes folded from scraps of wrapping paper and spaced by small pieces of a plastic drinking straw that hang in my office, made by an old woman in the streets of Thailand.

Paper Cranes

PHOTO: Mary van Balen
Paper cranes

Gifts seem unevenly given. Life is kinder to some than to others. Yet, every person, from the richest to the poorest, from those who appear most accomplished to those who, by society’s standards, have done little, holds a spark of Divinity to share. Our journey is to discover what that is and to give it away.

That’s all God asks of us: To do the best we can with what we have been given. Not to become overwhelmed by our flaws, deficiencies, or struggles, but to accept ourselves and our gifts and live life with energy, enthusiasm, and love. To the world’s surprise, the offered lives of those considered “least” often change it most profoundly.

The only quote I could find from Florence Foster Jenkins was this: “Some may say that I couldn’t sing, but no one can say that I didn’t sing.

She gave what she had to give. In the end, how it was received was less important than that it was given.

Note: This column marks 30 years of my writing for The Catholic Times. I thank the paper for providing space for me to share reflections on the Sacred that is present in everyday life. I thank you, my readers, and hope that in some small way, these columns have helped you celebrate that Presence in your own lives.

© 2016 Mary van Balen