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

Encountering the Other

Encountering the Other

modern painting circle of five people in an embrace

Painting by Richard Duarte Brown

Originally published in the Catholic Times, 9. 1315

A few days ago, while driving to work, I heard a story on NPR about the thousands of immigrants arriving on the small Greek island of Lesbos, refugees fleeing war and oppression in Syria, looking for a place to live. They risked a dangerous journey leaving everything behind and set off toward an unknown future. Husbands and wives, parents and children, friends and relatives, all willing to trust their lives to people and places they do not know.

Listening to reporters interviewing newly arrived refugees, I marveled at the joy in their voices. Thrilled to have survived the journey and to be standing on solid ground in a place free of war and the atrocities that accompany it, they spoke with such hope, such faith in God, or if not in God, in fellow human beings.

I wanted to rejoice with them, but concern tempered my delight as I wondered what the road ahead would bring for them: Mounds of paperwork and bureaucracy from governments hesitant to welcome so many people needing work and aid. Hostility and resistance from those who will feel threatened by their presence, by their “otherness.” Soon, frustration will replace the euphoria of the refugees’ first taste of freedom from constant fear and suffering.

Tragedy already darkens Syrian refugees’ arrival. The United Nations refugee agency reports that over 2,500 people have died this year trying to make the dangerous ocean crossing.

Driving home from work that same day, I heard an inspiring story of Icelanders who had formed a Facebook group, “Syria is Calling,” and is pressuring their government to take in more than the 50 refugees it had offered to accept—a lot more, 5,000. While the large number of people the group is proposing to welcome is impressive, it was the outpouring of individuals’ willingness to help that stirred my heart.

People offered to open up extra bedrooms in their homes and provide food, money, and house wares to help new arrivals settle in. This personal response is more demanding than putting a check in the mail, which is my plan. It means living with people who have different beliefs and values. In some cases, like sharing one’s home with strangers or welcoming them into your city, such action means daily encountering the “other” with openness and reverence for their personhood. It means, in the midst of serious complexities, maintaining the belief that we are more alike than different.

This post from “Syria is Calling” eloquently proclaims this truth: “Refugees are our future spouses, best friends, our next soul mate, the drummer in our children’s band, our next colleague, Miss Iceland 2022, the carpenter who finally fixes our bathroom, the chef in the cafeteria, the fireman, the hacker and the television host. People who we’ll never be able to say to: ‘Your life is worth less than mine.’”

These words challenge all of us around the globe to examine our own attitude toward the “other,” not only the Syrian refugees, but the marginalized people who live in our own cities and neighborhoods.

The Letter of Saint James, included in this Sunday’s readings, speaks forcefully about the responsibility of Christians to put their faith into action: “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

Fear of those who are not like us is no excuse; it is a human failing that must be confronted and transformed by love, a process that can take a lifetime. It is a process that requires encounter.

But suffering and injustice can’t wait for lifetimes. Our faith, our humanity, requires action before we are comfortable. We must respond with love despite our fear, and incrementally, our hearts will change. As Jesus said, love will cast out fear. We are all other to someone. Encounter will transform us: those in position to give and those who receive, privileged with voice and marginalized with none.

© 2015 Mary van Balen

Hang In There

Hang In There

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

We are not among those who draw back and perish, but among those who have faith and will possess life.  Hb 10, 39

This morning’s Mass readings were full of “words” that spoke to my heart: Not throwing away what you have been given. Seeds growing, we know not how. The tiniest of seeds becoming the largest of plants. As I sat quietly in prayer, I became aware of the plants that line up along my buffet in front of the window. Of the Peace Lilies, one huge, that filter the air I breathe. Of the mystery of how they grow, turning sunlight into what they need, and how they serve me and the planet. Mystery. So much I can never know.

But it was the line from Hebrews that struck deepest. I think because I’m sometimes among those who draw back. Life isn’t easy for any of us, regardless of appearances. Like the life of the peace lily, it’s full of unknowables. In the face of darkness I’m tempted to forget the Light. In the presence of silence, I’m tempted to forget the Song. Or worse, not believe that Light and Song are out there (or in here) at all. I keep on keeping on, as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie urged, but without much heart or expectation.

That’s the perishing. The death of hope. The closing up.

The line from Hebrews encourages us to keep the faith. The Holy Mystery doesn’t withhold Life. No. Life is always gushing out. Like rain, it falls everywhere, on everyone. Those hurt or pained by life’s unfair twists and turns may close up tight. The rain of Life runs all over them, but can’t get in. Or can it? God isn’t so easily evaded. Like the rain, Life falls into the soil around each soul, soaking deep into that which holds its roots. Life, sliding off the closed bloom, quietly moves up the stem, sucked up by the inborn will be. The Presence that falls on the outside resides in the center as well.

I think of those for whom just choosing to live is a day by day challenge. Their “yes” to life is as much opening as they can muster. And it is enough. For those of us for whom simply living does not require daily assent, but challenges our perseverance, closing up tight may be the best we can do on some days. That is enough,too.

Thankfully, God-Life keeps pouring out, never giving up on us even when we give up on God, and eventually, we gather enough green sap to chance opening again. When we are able, we discover not only that we possess Life, but Life has possessed us all along.



Song of Songs: God Waits with Desire

Song of Songs: God Waits with Desire

Song of Songs IV by Marc Chagall

Song of Songs IV by Marc Chagall

Here he stands behind our wall,

gazing through the windows,

peering through the lattices.  Song of Songs 2


These words from today’s readings became my Lectio word for the day. This book is full of vivid images, and I liked to imagine God lingering behind the walls I construct, gazing at me. Seeing what is good and beautiful and waiting for me to return the gaze.

I know how love and desire can fill a gaze. I know the feeling of love bursting out, pouring through my eyes upon the one I love. I have felt the warmth of such a gaze and the fullness it creates within my heart. I have known this with another. I have known it with God.

Imagine, the Holy One, standing near, beholding you and your unique beauty. The Holy One calling you out to yourself as well as to the One Who Made You. In God’s eyes you are magnificent. Love, God’s and our own, helps us to see the beauty with as well as within those around us. Such love helps us see the beauty of creation.

Pondering these words makes me pray for an open heart, not only to receive Love, but to pour it out onto others.

DEEPENING: 5 Distractions

candle and labyrinthI followed the labyrinth path with the stylus. This time, I arrived at the center. Either luck or I am better at paying attention. Still, as I sit with the candle burning and quiet surrounding me, I struggle to just “be” with God. Distractions continue. Great lines for a blog or an article or a letter to a publisher. At least they seem great at the moment. Reluctantly, I let them go, trusting if they are that good they will return after prayer time. Schedule. Not as much there as in the past. Mostly keeping up therapy and doctor appointments. Those are easier to ignore…I know they are written in my appointment book.

Breathe in. Breathe out. “Pre…sence. Pre…sence.”

Remember sitting with a beloved, one with whom you have fallen in love, head over heels? Years ago, decades really, my roommate complained. When I was with my boyfriend, I was oblivious to everything and everyone else, and that included her. Of course, that absorption didn’t last forever, but I do remember it. Distractions weren’t a problem; bringing myself back to reality was!

I would like to sit with God that way. I have done so, now and then, in the past, but I’ve lost the ability. For now, I listen to the voices that intrude on time set aside for quiet prayer, and then let them go. The problem is, they seem to be waiting in an unending line: Adult children, finding a publisher, writing an article, disturbing news articles, glorious sunlight pouring in the windows (or rain pelting against them). “To dos.” “Wish I had dones.”  I listen then let them go.

When the allotted time has passed, I realize that of the half hour, I may have had a few moments of true silence and simply “being.” But I was there. In the chair. Giving it my best…

…Patient One, I take comfort in the knowledge that when you look at me, you see your daughter, taking time to be with you. You don’t count the minutes my mind wanters or struggles to simply be with you. Like a parent happy to see an adult child pull into the driveway and come through the door. No matter what the visit brings, there is joy at their coming. Their thinking of you. I’ll be back tomorrow, and I know you’ll be glad.   Amen


Remembering Dad

Remembering Dad

I’ve been thinking of Dad all day. He died in September, 2011. This would have been his 95th birthday. I thought of him as I washed my face and noticed the diamond engagement ring he gave to my mother sparkling on my finger. (It’s difficult to think of Dad without thinking about Mom, too.) How many times its brilliance reminds me of the example they were of what St. Paul said in today’s reading: The entire law is fulfilled in this one thing…Love your neighbor as yourself. Mom and Dad were good at that.

Parents are a child’s first experience of the world. Of love. If one is blessed. And I was. I have lots of memories of Dad. I remember crying and being sick when he had to leave for a week when I was young and he traveled a lot for his job. Mom said neighbors commented that they knew Dad was home when they looked in the windows and could see little legs dangling as Dad carried his young children, one by one around the house.

[Read more…]