Thursday, April 27, 2023

Lodging in Wisdom's branches

Happy those who meditate on Wisdom,
and fix their gaze on knowledge;
Who ponder her ways in their heart,
and understand her paths;

Who pursue her like a scout,
and watch at her entry way;
Who peep through her windows,
and listen at her doors;

Who encamp near her house
and fasten their tent pegs next to her walls;
Who pitch their tent beside her,
and dwell in a good place;

Who build their nest in her leaves,
and lodge in her branches;
Who take refuge from the heat in her shade
and dwell in her home. - Sirach 14:21-27

Yesterday was the feast of Our Mother of Good Counsel, the titular feast of my parish and the patroness of the Vatican Observatory. And by some miracle, perhaps the intervention of our Lady, my early morning meeting was canceled and so I found myself at the 8 AM mass, where the scent of the pastor's homemade sticky buns was creeping in the door.  There was breakfast for all comers afterwards!

The readings were taken from the Augustinian lectionary for the feast, rather than the Easter season, for we are an Augustinian parish. The first reading was this pericope from Sirach. Though I have heard it before, I was struck yesterday by this description of those who seek Wisdom, the Holy Spirit. So like the scientist that I am and the scientists who are my colleagues at the Observatory. We pursue the mysteries of the universe like scouts, we peep through the windows and listen at the doors. We encamp, settle in, willing to take our time dwelling with God's created world.

As I write this, I'm sitting in my study. The green leaves of the oak trees that surround the house have come out and I truly feel as if I have a nest in Wisdom's leaves and am firmly lodged in her branches.

Photo is of a painting of Our Mother of Good Counsel (the original is a fresco at Genazzano, Italy) in the entryway of the Vatican Observatory outside Rome.

Friday, April 07, 2023

Do this in memory of me

(This is an edited and expanded version of a very brief reflection I gave at my parish's mission a few weeks ago. The movie is wrenching, and a difficult watch, but also beautiful.)

A few weeks ago I watched a movie on PBS. My oldest son had worked on the production, stage managing the play and then the film  and I wanted to see what he had done. The film, Remember This, was about listening, about listening deeply, and about seeing and what happens when we are deliberately blind to those around us. It told the story of Jan Karski, a Catholic and who worked with the Jewish Polish resistance during World War II, who told of the horrors they were enduring even before the US entered the war. Warning the world, warnings that went unheard. We could have stopped it, but we refused to hear. Forty years after the war, Karski said that he was still haunted by what he saw, and moreover that he wanted to be haunted by it. 

I want to tell you about a time when I saw something, and then chose to be blind to it. The experience haunts me, and I think, as Karski did, that I want it to haunt me. It was a bitterly cold December day and I was in a taxi outside Union Station in Washington DC on my way to give a talk. I looked out the window to see a man in a beige wool coat with a cup of coffee in one hand and a bagel in the other. As he crossed the street he tossed the half eaten bagel into the trashcan on the corner. I can still see the arc it made as it sailed through the air. And then I saw a man in a thin sweatshirt get off a nearby bench and reach into the trashcan, pick up the bagel and take a bite.

I was horror-struck. How hungry do you have to be to fish a half-eaten bagel out of the trashcan? I knew what I should've done, gotten out of that taxicab, and given him my hat, my gloves and my jacket — though in retrospect it was unlikely to fit — and taken him for breakfast. But I did none of these things. The traffic eased, the taxi drove on. If I saw Jesus on the street corner, how fast would I have bounded out of the car and said come have breakfast with me? The trouble is, I did see Jesus on the street corner, and chose to be blind. I still cringe when I think of it, and have mentally dubbed this experience the parable of the two men and the bagel.

When Karski walked the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, his companion kept repeating to him, “Remember this. Remember this." I want to hear as I walk the world Jesus repeating in my ear, "Remember this, remember me." I want to be haunted, so that in the end when Jesus asks me when I saw him, when I fed him and clothed him and cared for him, I can say, “on every street corner.”

In his homily last night for Holy Thursday our pastor asked us what we thought Jesus meant when he said, "do this in memory of me." Do we think he meant solely the celebration of the Eucharist? Or perhaps this yearly washing of the feet? Or is Jesus asking us to shape our whole lives in memory of everything that we have seen and heard of his life. So yes to the Eucharist, and yes to the washing of the feet. But also yes to the feeding of the hungry, and yes to the healing of the sick, and yes to the welcoming of those who the world pushes to the edges, unheard and unseen. And I thought again of Jan Karski, and those whispered words "remember this, remember this."