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

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

This Business of Being

This Business of Being

yellow wild flowers and a rock near bay on Whidbey Island

PHOTO: Mary van Balen Whidbey Island

Originally published in The Catholic Times

A few weeks ago in Barnes & Noble, while browsing through the bookstore looking for an old book they didn’t have, I wandered into the poetry section and picked up a slim, hardback volume with “Felicity” and “Mary Oliver” writ large in white across the soft gray sky on the cover.

I stood and read a poem about St. Augustine. “Take heart,” it said to me. Augustine didn’t become himself overnight. There was one about a cricket, finding its way into a house in the fall.

I’ve been on a Mary Oliver jag ever since, pulling out books I already own, ordering Felicity and the second volume of “New and Selected Poems.” She’s a master of attention and mindful living. Her poems are prayer, savoring the Sacred in our midst, perhaps in an armful of peonies or a heron’s flight. “I want to make poems while thinking of/the bread of heaven and the/cup of astonishment… (from “Everything” in New and Selected Poems – Volume Two).

There is something about the grace of her poetry that anchors me when reports of violence, hatred, and fear threaten to overwhelm. The news we hear most often is bad, and while my daughter assures me that we live in a world with less, not more, violence than in centuries past (We just hear about more of it, she says), some days this planet seems a dangerous place careening towards disaster.

Yet, in this same time and place there is hope. There is goodness and love that refuse to give in to despair. There is mercy and forgiveness. There are people who, little by little, replace darkness with light by simply living as best they can, showing kindness and compassion along the way. They speak the truth they know and go about the ordinary tasks of life. There is Spirit, shared with each of us, who draws us to goodness if we allow, and empower us to make life’s journey as partners with the One who is transforming the world.

Poets express in words (and the spaces between them) something of this mystery and their experience of it, inviting readers to participate. I suppose, now and again, a line or two, or even a complete poem moves quickly and effortlessly from heart to word, but that is a rare mercy—the inbreaking of Spirit to a practiced soul, aware and open to such things.

Poets I’ve known and my attempts at writing verse, have taught me that writing poetry is work. Ted Kooser, U.S. poet laureate 2004-06, once surprised my adult GED students by sharing his writerly routine (up early every morning for fifty years, writing an hour and a half before leaving the house) and the revelation that he had revised one of their favorite, very short poems 50 times.

The same daughter who assures me the human condition is actually improving can’t imagine why anyone would want to write—for her, it’s agony. But, as poet Maya Angelou’s quote on a postage stamp states, “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”

Poets write because that is what is they are made to do, and they are faithful. A poem in “Felicity” moved me to remember that we all are made to be a particular reflection of God in the world and that we, the world, and the cosmos are better off when we’re faithful to it. Jesus is the perfect example of such authentic living: He is God’s own life, and he shares it with us.

Wld rose bush with pink bloomsThe poem is “Roses.” Oliver writes of the quest to answer life’s “big questions” and decides to ask the wild roses if they know the answers and might share them with her. They don’t seem to have time for that. As they say, “…we are just now entirely busy being roses.”

How glorious if all humanity could know themselves as honestly and be themselves as genuinely as those roses. But we are wounded, and there is evil, and taking time to be still and listen to the Spirit within is difficult in the busyness of daily life.

The universe suffers from this disconnect. We see that in the eyes of the poor, marginalized, and war-weary. We see it in eyes reflecting anger, hatred, and fear that fuel violence. We hear it in the groaning of our planet with melting icecaps and water and air that poison its creatures

April is national poetry month. What better time to listen to the poets among us, past and present, who speak their truth and encourage us to do the same.

© 2016 Mary van Balen

Music in the Air

Music in the Air

Musicians on Royal Street

Musicians on Royal Street

Even before getting out of bed in the morning, I hear music punctuating the other sounds of New Orleans waking up for a new day. One man sings, unaccompanied at the entrance to a store across the street. Soon a horn or two is heard. Maybe guitars. By lunch time, no matter where you walk, you are entertained by the gift of musicians sharing their talent and passion.

Passsersby throw coins or a bill in the box or hat or instrument case lying open nearby. But the musicians play, paid or not. Their gift is my grace. My morning or noon or night prayer, reminding me to give thanks for life spirit that is freely given, not only by the street musicians, but also by the One who breathes life into us all.