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

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?

 

Icons: Windows into God

Icons: Windows into God

Photo of Thai stamps showing image of Guan Yin

Photo: Mary van Balen

In Icons: Windows into God, the lead article in the October 2017 issue of Celebration published by the National Catholic Reporter, I expand the definition of “icon” to include objects, physical representations, or metaphors that have become windows drawing us into communion with the Holy Mystery. From impressionistic masterpieces in the Musée d’Orsay, to the Asian bodhisattva Guan Yin, to the constellations, the world full of images that enrich and enlarge our experience of God who is beyond all images.

The medieval theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart said that no one could ever have found God. No, The Divine gave the Godself  away.

There is no place or time where God is not. Holy Mystery does not hide. But to see, we must pay attention—and look  through all the “windows” we can.

Click the link below to read the article:

Icons: Windows into God Finding glimpses of God in unexpected places

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

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