The “Both/And” of our Our Faith

The “Both/And” of our Our Faith

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

Originally published in The Catholic Times, December 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2017 Mary van Balen


Thankful for the Gift of Presence

Thankful for the Gift of Presence

Originally published in The Catholic Times November 12, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2017 Mary van Balen

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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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?”


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?


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

What Were They Thinking?

What Were They Thinking?

Oil Painting, "The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection" by Eugène Burnand 1898

The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection by Eugène Burnand 1898
Oil on canvass
Musée d’Orsay

Last spring, while walking down a narrow gallery in the Musée d’Orsay, I looked into a larger room and saw a painting of two men running through the countryside on an early morning. Their dress and faces left no doubt—Peter and John were running to see if Mary of Magdala was  right.

Different gospels tell the story in different ways. In John’s gospel, Mary arrived at the tomb alone in the early morning, saw the stone rolled back, and ran to tell Peter and the others that someone had taken the body. Peter and John ran to see for themselves. John, the author tells us, looked inside, saw the burial cloths, and believed. After Peter and John returned home, Mary remained, and saw two angels who asked her why she was weeping. She answered, turned and saw Jesus, thinking he was a gardener. Only when he spoke her name did she recognize him.

Luke’s gospel tells of the women of Galilee who had followed when Jesus was laid in the tomb and who returned the day after the sabbath, carrying spices and oils they had prepared. They entered the empty tomb and were puzzling over it when two men “in dazzling garments” appeared and told them that Jesus had been raised, as he had said he would be. The women ran to tell the others who thought they were talking nonsense. Only Peter returned to the tomb in this telling and went home amazed. Then comes the story of Jesus appearing to travelers on the road to Emmaus.

Mark’s gospel has two endings. In the shorter one, three women, including Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James (both mentioned in Luke’s story) carried spices to anoint the body. They found the stone rolled back and the tomb empty. A young man clothed in white told them that Jesus had been raised and instructed them to go tell the others. But the women, were afraid and told no one.

The longer ending includes Jesus’ early morning appearance to Mary Magdalene who then told the others who were “mourning and weeping.” The didn’t believe her. Next, Jesus appeared to two disciples walking along a country road. They also told the others, who didn’t believe them either.

Matthew’s gospel is similar. The two Mary’s went to the tomb. While they were there, the earth shook, and an angel appeared, rolled back the stone and sat on it. The guards “…became like dead men.” The angel spoke to the women, told them not to be afraid, and invited them in to see where Jesus, now raised from the dead, had been laid. This time, the women were both fearful and overjoyed as they hurried to tell the others. They saw Jesus on their way, and he reassured them: “Do not be afraid,” and instructed them to go tell the others. There is no mention of how the women and their message was received.

Interesting. It was women who went to the tomb. It was women to whom Jesus first appeared and instructed to go tell the others. And, in two of the gospels that report reactions, the women were not believed. In Mark’s, neither were the travelers.

Why not? Was it just that those hearing the women’s story had a low estimation of women’s ability to be sensible in times of stress?  Thought they were hysterical, seeing things, or hearing voices? Maybe. Why not believe the disciples who encountered Jesus while they were walking, trying to comprehend the events of the past two days? We’re not told who they were, if they were men, women, or a couple. Simply disciples.

Close up of Eugène Burnand's paintining

Detail of Eugène Burnand’s painting

Looking at the exquisitely painted faces of Peter and John in Burnand’s painting, I try to put myself in their situation. If the one I had come to love, trust, and believe was going to save me and my people from the oppressive Romans, or as unimaginable as it seemed, was God’s own face in the world, if he had been executed by the occupying powers, I would be overwhelmed with emotions: grief, anger, hopelessness, confusion.

And then, Mary comes with a story that’s too good to be true. Words that stir the ashes of despair and let hope flicker again. I don’t want to believe only to be disappointed all over again. I know what’s it’s like to be vulnerable and to be hurt. And to allow myself to become vulnerable and hurt again.

Still, there is hope, and so I run to see for myself.

Gazing at the faces in the painting, I wonder, “What were they thinking? What did they fear? What did they hope?”

And today, as I celebrate Easter, believing what many still consider nonsense, I ask myself the same things: What am I thinking? What do I fear? What do I hope?

©2017 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

Look at Me. Just Me.

Look at Me. Just Me.

Dome of Pantheon, with light streaming in.

PHOTO: Mary van Balen
Dome of Pantheon, Rome, Italy.

Originally published in The Catholic Times August 14, 2016 issue

While preparing to write this column, I read through the Mass readings for the week as I often do. Actually, I had a topic in mind, but the Spirit had another tucked into Sunday’s second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. “Brothers and sisters:” it begins, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.”

It was the phrase “keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus” that let me know clearly, this was the column. Here’s the back story. Last month, I sent an email to a good friend in Boston asking for prayers. We’d met during our first gathering for members of Shalem Institute’s Spiritual Guidance Program a couple of years ago and have stayed in touch ever since, continuing to share our journeys through letters, emails, and an occasional phone conversation.

When I wrote that email, life was feeling particularly overwhelming. Changes in family routine and a world where violence seemed more random and sinister than ever—though of course it’s always sinister and often random—were getting the best of me. My “worry gene” had kicked in, and I couldn’t quiet my mind or spirit for long. Falling asleep at night was difficult.

The email request for prayer wasn’t about this sense of turmoil, but as the Spirit would have it, my friend’s answer was.

It turned out he was on a challenging retreat. With the change of venue from a lovely new retreat house on the ocean (the building had fallen behind schedule and wasn’t ready) to a gloomy, old institutional building that once housed a seminary, and the discovery that the retreat was for spiritual directors giving the Ignatian Exercises (which he was not), the first few days were tough going.

He felt distant and agitated. Then, as he wrote: “I heard Christ telling me: ‘Look at me.  Just at me.’  Finally, last night, I was able to settle a bit in prayer.”

I couldn’t get those words out of my mind. “Look at me. Just at me.” That night, I tried to do that, to keep my focus on Christ. Not on events swirling around me and pulling me with them into dis-ease and anxiety. I fixed the gaze of my heart on Jesus. The one who loves. The one who holds. The one who is always “with.”

It wasn’t easy. Nagging fears and a sense that the world was somehow careening out of control kept calling for my attention. Not being sucked into the chaos required a conscious choice again and again, to heed Christ’s words: “Look at me.”

Slowly, that choice to look at Love made a difference. The grip of events that were tempting me with illusions of the ability control them loosened. Instead of imagining control, I felt moved to surrender to trust instead. Not a trust that everything was going to go as I wanted it to or that evil didn’t exist, but a trust that everything didn’t depend on me and my constant attempts to figure it out. The chatter that filled my head started to fade until finally there was blessed quiet. Churning and turmoil was being replaced by stillness and calm.

I slept well that night, and many nights after. Whenever I felt worry taking hold or fear seeping in to my center, I repeated the Christ’s injunction: “Look at me. Just at me,” and turned the eyes of my heart to Love.

So today, when I came across the admonition in Hebrews to embrace the wisdom of the “cloud of witnesses” and let go of burdens and sin that cling to us, to go forward and meet whatever is ahead while keeping our eyes on Jesus, I remembered my friend’s words that have become a powerful prayer for me.

It’s not magic. Sleep sometimes eludes. Deep openness is still gift. I wake up knowing I have work to do. Transforming the world is everyone’s work. But we don’t do it ourselves. We do it by letting Love fill us until we can bring that Holy Mystery to every place and every person we meet. Somehow, we face the evil and craziness and unknown with the steadiness of Love. I’m not sure how it works. It has something to do with being present. It has something to do with trust. It has everything to do with Love.

©2016 Mary van Balen

Advent in a World of Turmoil

Advent in a World of Turmoil

Starry night sky over pines

PHOTO: Jennifer Stephens

Originally published in The Catholic Times, December 13, 2015


“What does keeping Advent mean for us now, today?” I asked myself after reading a couple newspaper articles about mass shootings and escalating fear and anger at terrorist attacks. I was still pondering while making a quick stop at a mall. Lights and hype along with an unending string of Christmas music bombarded the senses, and on the drive home, Pope Francis’s reference to this year’s Christmas trappings being a charade came to mind.

Checking the text, I discovered that he opened his homily with “Jesus wept,” adding later “…because Jerusalem did not know the way of peace and chose the hostility of hatred, of war.” With Christmas coming, the pope said “…there will be lights, there will be celebrations, trees lit up, even nativity scenes…all decorated: the world continues to wage war…The world has not comprehended the way of peace.” The entire world is at war, piecemeal, and the cost is great—A somber message for the coming season of joy and hope.

While terrorism and wars are in the news around the world, they are not the only form of violence. There’s also violence against the poor and marginalized when funding for safety-net programs are cut. Civil rights for all are a continuing issue, as is adequate care for those suffering from mental illness. (Many mass shooters suffer from it.)

The earth itself suffers at the hands of human beings, yet some choose to dismiss the issue of global warming and the investment in new technologies needed to address it. (Did you see the pope’s shoes, sitting along with 20,000 others in a public square in Paris during the climate talks there—A quiet “march” to support those working to find ways for governments to respond to this threat?)

The pope is right: The world has not embraced the way of peace. How do we do that? How do we find hope in a dark world?

A friend sent a poem she has been using for Advent reflection: “Annunciation” by Denise Levertov. “Aren’t there annunciations/of one sort or another/in most lives?” the poet asks before pondering how we do or do not accept the annunciations that come to us. She writes of Mary, a young girl like other young girls, but called to a “destiny more momentous that any in all of Time;” she didn’t hesitate to embrace it.

Levertov concludes that whatever we have to offer is enough. “The blessing is not in the treasure/But in the letting go.” We are called to give what we have, not to hold it close, but to generously pour onto the world. We are called to lavish Love on the marginalized who need our care and nurture, much as Jesus needed protection within the womb as he grew.

Levertov’s poem reminds me of the loaves and fishes story. The young boy freely gave what he had, and Jesus made it enough.

Maybe that’s what’s Advent’s quiet and waiting is about. Avoiding the distractions of orchestrating a “perfect Christmas” and instead giving ourselves time to pay attention to what Grace has been placed in our hearts, not turning from the challenges of sharing it in a dark and often hostile world. Like Mary, we’re called to say, “Yes, I’ll give all that I am.”

A poem by Jessica Powers, considers the Incarnation. “In Too Much Light,” she sees the Magi following one star and laments her difficulty finding one to follow. Her revelation?

Faith cries out ‘til her voice fails, proclaiming that in every spot and time, “…there is not any place/ when the sought Word is not.”

That’s where our hope lies this Advent, when even our pope laments the darkness and choices for war over peace.

It is within, given when the Holiest of Mysteries became one of us, sharing Love and trusting us to share it in our times and places. The hope is discovering that light, not outside us, but in our deepest center. Being selfless with it, giving it away, is embracing the way of peace.

When we discover the divine light within ourselves and within all others in this world, the wounded, the suffering, the marinalized, the fearful, the violent, then we’ll have found the God we prepare to celebrate during Advent.

Jessica again: “Behold, all places which have light in them/truly are Bethlehem.”


© 2015 Mary van Balen

Surprised by Pope Francis: Day and Merton

Surprised by Pope Francis: Day and Merton

Close up of Dorothy Day

First published in The Catholic Times, October 11, 2015 issue


I stayed home from work the morning that Pope Francis spoke to the United States Congress. I wanted to watch his face and the faces of those gathered to hear him: A congress mired in partisan politics, hopelessly polarized. What would Pope Francis say to them? To the country? How would our elected officials receive his words? It was a moment I wanted to witness as it unfolded.

The pope did not disappoint. Just a couple of weeks ago, at a gathering of citizens concerned about issues of social justice and a stalled political system, a gentleman expressed dismay that the concept of the common good was no longer a topic in public discourse. Pope Francis took care of that.

He had barely spoken a hundred words when he directed attention to our solemn responsibility for the common good. “You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens,” he said to the lawmakers, “in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics.”

By now, most who read this column will have read (or heard) various commentaries on the address and what the pope did and did not say. But, what surprised me was how he said it: He used the example of four great Americans who gave their lives to service and to the betterment of society. Two, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., often serve as inspirational examples, fittingly so.

The other two are the ones I didn’t expect: Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. In my late teens I read a number of their books. They influenced my faith and spirituality. Still, I wondered, how many of the government officials sitting in the room knew those names? How many watching and listening around the country wondered who they were and searched for them on mobile phones and tablets?

They’d find Dorothy Day, born in 1897, was a radical who advocated for women’s suffrage, a pacifist who opposed all wars, and a tireless worker for social justice who saw the need not only to serve the poor she encountered in daily life, but also to change the system that created such poverty and injustice. She was a writer and journalist who gave voice to marginalized people and causes.

A convert to the Catholic faith that fed and sustained her, Dorothy attended daily Mass, read scripture, and wove prayer throughout her days. As a friend who once heard her speak said, “She was prayer.

Dorothy, along with close friend Peter Maurin, founded “The Catholic Worker” newspaper and the movement of the same name. Catholic Worker Houses continue to welcome the poor and are places where the corporal works of mercy are lived out. As Pope Francis encourages, they are places of encounter.

The pope spoke a second name that I didn’t expect to hear: Thomas Merton, a Trappist Monk at the monastery of Gethsemani, in Kentucky. We celebrated the 100th anniversary of his birth this year. Pope Francis singled him out for his openness to dialog with others of all faiths, seeing them as pilgrims on the same search for ultimate truth. His last journey was to Bangkok where he attended an international conference on monasticism, organized by Buddhist monks. Like Day, he calls us to deep encounter with those unlike ourselves.

Thomas Merton standing outside Pope Francis also recommended Merton’s openness to God in a contemplative style of prayer. Merton in the midst of a world immersed in “noise” of all types—digital, visual, aural—pouring out of players, electronics, out of the depths of our souls, calls us to quiet presence. For those who fill up every moment with activity and distraction, he says, “Be still. Listen.”

Like Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton was a writer and a convert. His books addressed spirituality and political topics. He was an outspoken critic of the Viet Nam War and the arms race.

Two people of deep faith and prayer: One active in the world, the other a monk responding to world issues with his pen; both social activists who pointedly challenged the status quo and whose words speak to us today. Immigration, poverty, climate change, racism, and violence require bold responses from all of us, not only governments.

If you’re not familiar with Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, consider reading some of their work or finding out more about their lives and spiritual journeys. Pope Francis’ choices challenge us all.

© 2015 Mary van Balen