Wednesday, March 31, 2021

To be all flame

I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. (Isaiah 49:6b)

One of my favorite stories from the fifteen hundred year-old collection of wisdom from the desert fathers and mothers is of Abba Lot and Abba Joseph of Panephysis. One day Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph for advice. “I fast, I pray, I live in peace,” he said, “What else should I do?” Abba Joseph lifted his hand to heaven. Flames danced at his fingertips and he turned to Abba Lot and said, “If you wish, you can become all flame.”

We have fasted and prayed and given alms this Lent. What more is expected of us? We hear in Isaiah that we are to be a light to the nations, a light visible to the ends of the earth. All flame, if we wish, says Abba Joseph. But how? Writing on the psalms, St. Augustine points out that our light does not come from ourselves, it is the Lord who sets our lamps alight. Lift up your hands to heaven and pray to be alight, to be all flame.

To pray to be light is risky. We are not asking for a light to see by, for something to hold up that we might illuminate our failings or to show us the safe path — as perilous as those prayers might be. We are asking to be light that others can see by, to be set on fire by the Lord, and what is set aflame is utterly transformed. Christ dares me to lay aside my own desires and let him light my lamp, remaking me in ways I cannot imagine. If I wish, I could become all flame. But do I wish?

Cartoon from Radio Free Babylon. From Not By Bread Alone, Liturgical Press, 2018.

Monday, March 29, 2021

The Weight of Glory

Almost one in four families in the US did not always have enough to eat last year. The UN thinks that those struggling with hunger will double across the world thanks (no thanks?) to the pandemic. I think about it each time I grocery shop, as staples for the food cupboard are standard on my list, a tithe of my grocery cart for the hungry:  5 pounds of rice, tuna fish, cereal, coffee, jam.  When I pack up the bag each week to take to church I sometimes hear the dinner guests in Bethany murmuring in my ear, seventy-five thousand hungry people — do you honestly think what you are doing makes any difference?

We are engulfed by the Passion in Holy Week. It seems such a long way from Ash Wednesday, when the ground was hard and cold and the branches stuck out like bones.  Against that stark backdrop, the call to justice sounded clearly, but now that the trees are misted green with new leaves, it gets harder to imagine that people around me are still cold and hungry.  In the glory and the chaos of Holy Week it’s easy to let the every day work of the Gospel become submerged.  

But listen, I hear this gospel say to me, don’t let the enormity of what is happening overtake you, pay attention to the people on the edges of the action. Watch the disciples in the garden and the women at the cross, called to companion and witness.  Hear the centurion, driven to cry aloud a newfound faith.  Feel the weight of the body of Christ, like Simon the Cyrene and Joseph of Arimathea.  None of these acts would be enough to save Jesus, but all of them made a difference — then and now. 

I wonder what happened to Simon the Cyrene and to Salome.  The Gospels are silent, but somehow I suspect that whatever they went home to, it was never quite ordinary again. What will happen when this week is over? Will I return to the ordinary — or what passes for ordinary these days — dropping the faded lilies on the compost heap on the way out? Or will I be willing to bear the weight of glory?

This is an edited version of a reflection from Not By Bread Alone, Liturgical Press, 2018. Photo is of the door to the Passion facade at Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Midwives for the Holy Spirit

...for each of us is the midwife of God...

I find this line from Daniel Ladinsky’s poem If You Wish, which riffs on lines from St. John of the Cross, regularly surfaces in my prayer. It reminds me we are entrusted not only with bearing God within, but with bringing God to birth in each other, bound to supporting each other's prayer.

For Lent I am following Mary Forman OSB’s Praying with the Desert Mothers. Even the cover draws me deep into the stillness. Each chapter begins with a scripture passage and a prayer, then follows on with a reflection that draws on the writings of the desert mothers and their contemporaries. My academic heart delights in the copious footnotes that accompany each chapter. They are like deep wells, ready for me to draw from if I thirst for more. For now, what is here is enough.

Now with you is Wisdom, who knows your works
and was present when you made the world;
Who understands what is pleasing in your eyes
and what is conformable with your commands.
Send her forth from your holy heavens
and from your glorious throne dispatch her
That she may be with me and work with me,
that I may know what is pleasing to you.
— Wisdom 9:9-10

Friday, March 05, 2021

Dreaming of God


“When his brothers saw that their father loved him best of all his brothers, they hated him so much that they could not say a kind word to him.” Gn 37:4

As one of a large, talkative family, I wonder what it felt like for Joseph, to be so isolated from all his brothers, who had not a kind word for him, or perhaps any words at all.  And yet when his father asked, Joseph went the full distance and more to check on the well-being of a group of men who wouldn’t give him the time of day. 

My ear is usually caught in this reading by the mention of the 20 pieces of silver, the betrayal that prefigures Judas and Christ.  I wonder if subconsciously I’m eager to get to Easter, to fast forward to the story where I know there is a happy ending.  Yet the brothers’ betrayal didn’t start with throwing Joseph into the cistern, it began when the brothers — all of them — stopped saying hello to Joseph.  

I suspect that like the brothers, there are more than a few moments every day where I haven’t a word for God.  Praying first thing in the morning? “Are we out of milk?” calls my husband from the shower.  At midday?  There’s a desperate student knocking on my door.  Surely I can find a moment at the end of the day?  “Forgot, I have a meeting tonight, can you start dinner now?”  

I don’t set out to push God out of my daily life, it’s a gradual thing. It’s not malicious, it’s merely the clamor of my daily life. Joseph’s story reminds me that even when the urgent, and not-so-urgent, daily demands lead me to push off my time with God, God still finds his way in. Perhaps Joseph is not the only one whose dreams are God-sent. 

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

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Salt and ashes

The images the prophet Jeremiah uses in today's readings are harsh: bushes that bear no fruit, lava wastes, fields sown with salt.  They feel all the more so to me after hiking through lava fields a few years ago, blackened, fissured swaths of land scoured clean of life winding through lush grasslands.  With no soil to hold the rocky surface in place, the gravel rolled under my feet, leaving me off balance, unstable, at risk.  The ground had been cooling since before I was born, yet I still burned my hand on steam roiling out a crack in the earth. Sulfurous mist swirled around the crater, eating away at skin and lungs.  I longed to dive into a pool of cool water.

I have tasted salt and ashes in my life, too, stumbling when I encounter uncertain ground, looking for life and breath in places where there was none. I have committed sins that created seemingly uncrossable fissures between me and those I love. Between me and God.  

Like the rich man in Luke's gospel, who begged Abraham for drop of water from Lazarus’ hand, I long for the cool sweetness of consolation.  Just a drop of holy water from a saint’s hand and all will be well, I think. But as a single torrential rain storm will not bring life back to the lava waste, neither is one drop enough to restore my soul, even from the hand of a saint.

Tolle lege, a voice called to St. Augustine in the garden one afternoon: take and read. “You have Moses and the prophets,” I hear Abraham say.  Meditate on God’s law day and night, urges the psalmist.  Let these streams of running water wear away the roughness of your stony heart.  Root yourself deeply in the rich soil of the prophets. The readings encourage me to pick up the Scriptures: Take and read! Read to go beyond what is presented to me at Mass, and read to actively seek out the Word.  Find ways to let scripture’s cool comfort wash over me day and night.

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

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.)