Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Wearing grace

"...we will always be tempted again to take fright and flee back into what is familiar and near to us: in fact, we will often have to and will often be allowed to do this. But we should gradually try to get ourselves used to the taste of the pure wine. of the spirit, which is filled with the Holy Spirit. We should do this at least to the extent of not refusing the chalice when His directing providence offers it to us.

The chalice of the Holy Spirit is identical in this life with the chalice of Christ. This chalice is drunk only by those who have slowly learned in little ways to taste the fullness in emptiness, the ascent in the fall, life in death, the finding in renunciation." Karl Rahner, SJ in "The Experience of Grace"

Jesus' question to the disciples in today's Gospel — "Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?” — led me to pull my tattered copy of Karl Rahner, S.J.’s beautiful essay “The Experience of Grace” off my shelf. In it, Rahner speaks of the chalice that is offered to each of us, the wine within tasting of Christ’s sacrifice, his emptying out. We might not always be able to drink from this cup, Rahner says, perhaps the best we can do at a given moment is not to push the cup away, but watch and wait. To trust in God’s slow work. To let grace wear away the rough edges.

I am moved by Rahner’s tacit assumption that we all have had moments when we have drunk from the chalice of grace. We might, he says, occasionally sift through our own experiences. Look for the moments when we’ve said yes to renunciation, yes to rising in the face of death and destruction, yes to pouring ourselves out. For the times when some impulse beyond ourselves has driven us to sacrifice, or when sacrifice has brought us no sense of achievement, no pride. We ought to search not so we know how far we’ve come in our spiritual journey, but that we might grasp how far we have to go. 

I’ve read Rahner’s essay so often it has become detached from the book. When I open it pages of grace drift to the floor.  Notice, it seems to say, the lived experience of grace.  Detached. Scattered. Pulled from what has kept it bound, so that others might read it: in our faces and in our actions.  

(Based on a reflection in Not By Bread Alone, 2018.)

Sunday, February 21, 2021


“This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” Mark 1:15

The images in today’s readings are arresting — devastating floods and burning deserts replete with wild beasts.  And out of it all, Mark shows us in today’s gospel Jesus striding forth, proclaiming: “Reform your lives! Believe in the Good News!”  The readings speak of pledges and covenants, of new life and a new kingdom.  “This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand!” cries Jesus.

Today I hear Lent’s clarion call: reform your life: today I find strength in Jesus’ bold proclamation: the time has come, the kingdom of God is upon us. But will I go to my office tomorrow, without once thinking what might come to pass?  The reign of God is at hand, surely, but come morning I’m likely to be caught up in a flood of papers to be marked and the roaring needs of cranky colleagues and desperate students. 

The Rev. Fred Rogers, who hosted a gentle TV show for children, advised parents trying to explain frightening events to their children to “look for the helpers,” that in times of trouble, someone always finds the strength to help. As Lent begins in earnest Jesus reminds me to cling to the Good News, to believe that the Kingdom of God is breaking through, even in my office, and to look around me for the signs.  

There are signs of the Kingdom everywhere.  The cross atop the church, stark against the sky, like a bow set in the clouds. God is here. The helpers, those who willing walk into deserts and brave roiling waters, and those who tidy my classroom each morning so that I might teach and my students learn.  

The kingdom of God is within reach, Jesus tells us.  Believe in the Good News, and be on the watch for the signs of the reign of God breaking through.

— Excerpt from Not By Bread Alone (2018), © Michelle M. Francl-Donnay

Call a fast

“This, rather, is the fasting I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke…Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry…” Isa 58:6a,7a

I’m now of an age where I am no longer bound to the Lenten fast, which I ruefully confess is a relief. It had become more and more of a struggle over the last few years and what was once a minor irritation, a useful chafe on my conscience, took on an outsized importance. I’ve traded the fast for other disciplines that remind to think of those for whom hunger is not a choice, of those who are bound to yokes that exhaust them. 

But it has me wondering if I should have given up on the traditional fast with such alacrity. When should a discipline be discarded? When it is too hard? I talk to students about the “zone of proximal development,” when an assignment is tough enough to leave them feeling delighted with their ability to master it, but not so difficult that all they are is frustrated. And fasting certainly pushed me out of my zone. 

This unsparing reading from Isaiah suggests that the Lenten fasting we are called to isn’t really a discipline at all, it’s not meant to teach me something, it’s meant to accomplish something. I’m meant to turn away from sin, turn away from my own needs and see to the needs of my sisters and brothers. So, how have I fasted today?

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Take up your cross

“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23b)

I regularly take up a cross.  As an altar server, as often as not I carry the cross in procession. I stand at the end of the main aisle, holding a cross that is taller than I am by half and weighty enough to feel it in my shoulders as I raise it up so that it can be seen above the heads of the assembly. And as I lead the procession down the aisle I cannot help but think about the less literal crosses that I will have to lift in my life. Will they make my shoulders ache, will I be able to balance them as I walk, where must I take them?  

My eyes go to the enormous painting of Christ crucified that hangs above the century-old marble altar in my parish church. Each time I hold the cross aloft I am brought face-to-face with Christ’s suffering, face-to-face with Christ in the tabernacle, face-to-face with Christ in the People of God assembled here. I walk without a hymnal, so the only words I have to take along for this journey are what are already in my heart and head. I will surely falter on the second verse. Clothed in white, a reminder of my baptismal garment, hands and face raised up, I walk. I walk toward God made flesh, toward boundless mercy.  Will this be what my last walk be like, from this life into the next? Stripped of words and pretenses, face-to-face with God and surrounded by those who have gone before me — praying not to falter? 

Take up your cross, says Christ, and follow me, for this is the road to eternal life and I will not let you fall.

— Excerpted from Not By Bread Alone (2020), Michelle M. Francl-Donnay

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

A time to notice

There is a beauty as well as a wildness to Lent’s path. In a reading from Isaiah at the Easter Vigil we hear God tell Israel, “I lay your pavements in carnelians, and your foundations in sapphires.” The readings marking our way along the days of the Lenten season are indeed like gemstones. Join me in walking the path this Lent.

“ Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them.” Matt 6:1a

“Why?” asks Jesus in the gospel. Why do you pray, fast, give alms? To be noticed? To be applauded? To be witness? Or to become? To become the face of Christ to your neighbor.

Lent is a time of noticing, rather than being noticed. To stand back, sit down, empty out, and notice why and how I pray, where I am needed, who I should be.

Lent calls us beyond the giving up of small luxuries, or even necessities, but through that emptying of ourselves and that carrying of others, to become Christ. “Where is their God?” cried those who saw Israel’s travails in the first reading. God is among us, in our neighbors, in our hearts. Would that you could read that on my face every day. 

— Based on reflections from Not By Bread Alone (2018), Michelle M. Francl-Donnay