Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Awakened to love, with wild companions

What happens when your soul
Begins to awaken
Your eyes
And your heart
And the cells of your body
To the great Journey of Love? 

First there is wonderful laughter
And probably precious tears 

And a hundred sweet promises
And those heroic vows
No one can ever keep. 

But still God is delighted and amused
You once tried to be a saint. 

What happens when your soul
Begins to awake in this world 

To our deep need to love
And serve the Friend? 

O the Beloved
Will send you
One of His wonderful, wild companions –
Like Hafiz.

- Hafiz (1325-1390)

The Caritas XXIII Retreat in Montecito this past weekend has reawakened something deep within me: confidence that Christ is present whenever “two or three are gathered together in His name” (Mt 18:20). Forty-three retreatants, fifteen facilitators, and a host of other helpers gathered to help one another “discover. love. anew.”  Through obvious and subtle ways, with awed looks or beaming smiles, marked by bouts of laughter or tears of joy, many of us experienced something unforgettable. One person shared how his experience was "transformative" at several levels; another remarked that it was “literally the most incredible experience of [her] life”; a third shared that her sense of God has not only been renewed but taken a leap; a fourth observed that he was surprised to “fall in love with community” in such a short time. While our experiences were unique and personal, something was awakened within each of us.

As I enter my 8-day silent retreat, I am deeply grateful for the “wild companions” sent by God. I recall each of their faces with a smile, laughter, or tears of joy.

There is a deep longing in each of us: to take another step in our Journeys of Love. How joyous it is to be accompanied by wonderfully “wild companions.”

Who help(s) awaken you to genuine love? Seek their company…

Sunday, January 8, 2012

God Surprises: The Epiphany of the Lord

“They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage.” – Mt 2:11

It is not a bad thing to look for signs. We need signposts to go on our way. We need clues to follow the path meant for us. Like the magi, we look for great, rising stars to show us the way toward God. Yet, we tend to focus on the signs rather than to where they point.

The scene of the magi’s visitation in today’s Gospel is almost anticlimactic. The wise searchers from the East have spent many years looking for the star. They went to the place of power and prestige to discover further. They were missioned by King Herod. The found and followed the great star, overjoyed. The build-up depicts an elaborate Hollywood epic. Yet, what did they find? A mother and her child, wrapped in swaddling cloth, in a cave-like manger,  surrounded by livestock and shepherds. Raymond Brown had said that the shepherds were not only poor, a good number of them were crooks. The king of the Jews, born in poverty, among shady people. Matthew did not even describe Joseph in the picture, whereas immediately before this passage, the evangelist described in details Joseph’s choice to remain with Mary. A startling discovery for wise men who spent so much time, money, and effort in search of God.

The magi discover what baffles many of us: God reveals Godself in surprising ways. Often through suffering and disbelief. I have been sad, disappointed, even felt betrayed at the resignation of Bishop Gabino Zavala, my regional bishop. Like so many people, he is for me a wonderful sign of God’s love for the poor, for ordinary people, for immigrants and union workers, for sound human judgment in huge bureaucratic systems. Although his trespasses do not negate the immense good that he did, there is a huge let down. As I sat with my not-so-positive feelings and shared them honestly without mincing words with the Lord, I saw in the eyes of Jesus sadness. Gradually his look turns to compassion. Then slowly, I experienced a profound sense of love and trust from him. It was like he was saying, “I am with you, all of you. I trust you to be my compassionate presence through your pain, to bear my grace through your fears, to be my healing through your brokenness.” What happens to Bishop Zavala happens to me, what happens to his children happens to me, what happens to broken families happens to me. And yet, God happens. God reveals Godself through anticlimactic happenings. We can look for signs. Even broken signs. Yet, it’s good to look where they point to, to whom they lead. That’s the power of signs. That’s the power of God who surprises.

Let us allow ourselves to wonder, in disbelief, in awe, as we come to God with honest feelings and thoughts lay bare, and allow God’s revelation to shine in surprising ways.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Everyday Miracles

And when the headwaiter tasted the water that had become wine, without knowing where it came from (although the servers who had drawn the water knew), the headwaiter called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves good wine first, and then when people have drunk freely, an inferior one; but you have kept the good wine until now.” John 2:9-10
At the wedding in Cana, Jesus performs His first miracle by turning the water into wine. When Mary said to Jesus, “They have no wine,” He fulfilled her request with abundant generosity by serving the best wine.
Two months ago on my birthday, my grandmother passed away. My aunt said her passing on my birthday is a gift from God. That day we celebrated her birthday into heaven and my birthday on this Earth. Two weeks prior to her passing, I remember praying by her bedside hoping for a miracle when all along the miracle was the legacy she left behind with 12 grandchildren and 9 great grandchildren, a pure example of God’s life giving abundance.
The scene of a wedding and Jesus’ act of turning water into wine reminds me of a talk by Fr. Paul Coutinho, SJ. He points out the mystical moment during the offertory where the priest quietly drops the water into the wine. He says, “The drop of water is me. The wine is God. ... I realize that God and I are one.”
When I focus on God’s presence, miracles big and small reveal themselves more readily. His love is overflowing like the wine at the wedding. My hope is to let His love overflow into each moment and be a witness of His miracles.

Where will you find the God given miracles of today?

reflected by Greg Lontok

Friday, January 6, 2012

Friday Before Epiphany

When I was a little girl, one of my favorite toys was Teddy Ruxpin. He was a talking bear, given life through batteries. When he would start speaking slowly or stop talking, my dad would simply recharge the batteries and Teddy was good to go. 

Have you ever felt like you were empty, perhaps almost lifeless? If so, I'm sure you'll agree it's a terrible feeling. How can we revive ourselves? How can we once again experience the true joy of our amazing God-given lives?

There were two phrases in today's first reading that spoke to me, the first being that the victor over the world is the one who believes in Jesus Christ. This simple phrase offers so much comfort and hope! When the world is flashing before our eyes, when everything seems to be going wrong and we just want to give up, we can find comfort in knowing that our faith in Jesus provides us with the strength and power we need to overcome any worldly troubles. 

Secondly, the Spirit, the water, and the Blood all agree. To me, this embodies the unity of not only God, but of my entire being. When there is a disconnect between the three, I feel restless, and when the disconnect is grave, the feeling of emptiness begins to take over, and the liveliness within me slowly vanishes; my life battery has run low. How do I pick myself back up? The answer is so simple yet so difficult-- prayer. By spending time with our Father, he recharges me piece by piece, and in time the life that slowly withered away returns with greater strength and joy.

As we begin this new year, I encourage you to examine your life's battery. Is it fully charged or in need of recharging?

reflected by Audrey Orda

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Memorial St. John Neumann

"Whoever does not love remains in death."

During the holiday season, I am normally hustling and bustling around, using the "break" from work to check off as many things on my to-do list as possible. I usually want to make or buy the perfect gift for everyone on my list, send out cards to loved ones who lived, and be in a lot of different places at once, helping around the house, running to the store to pick up that last ingredient or two, volunteering with my old Girl Scouts troop or planning reunions with old friends. Christmas and new years was always a very hectic time for me and I grew to expect it.

Right before Christmas, however, I got sick and didn't fully recover until new years eve. I didn't have the energy to write very much, let alone run to and fro as I normally would have liked to. I was anxious at first, thinking of all the things I couldn't do, until I realized how it was an invitation to slow down, take the time to truly be present with those around me. Christmas is one of the only times in the year when everyone in my family makes an extra effort to come together and be in one place, regardless of how far work, school or life takes them so in a way I felt really blessed to have gotten sick and been "forced" to slow down and take the time to more deeply connect with them.

Are you being called to love your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, but are too preoccupied to notice the invitations that are sprinkled throughout your day?
How can you renew your commitment to love others, even if it's something as simple as sharing a simple smile with the next forelorn looking stranger?

reflected by Kim Nguyen

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Do First, Understand Later: Feast of St Elizabeth Ann Seton

The person who acts in righteousness is righteous … no one who fails to act in righteousness belongs to God, nor anyone who does not love his brother.” – 1 Jn 3:7, 10

When I was in my teens, I did not really understand why my parents wanted me to go to Mass or boring religion classes on Sundays. I did so partially out of obedience, but even more so out of love and admiration for my elders. Years later, I understood. I realized that those times of going to Mass and learning about Catholicism really helped. Those experiences provided the crucial data I needed to make an informed choice to embrace the Christian faith on my own.

There is a similar wisdom in the Jewish understanding of “righteousness,” or keeping the commandments. The statement "na'aseh v'nishma = we will do and then we will understand" epitomizes the Jewish approach to keeping the faith. The Jewish people promise first to observe the laws of the Torah, and only afterward to study these laws.

This approach to religion makes a lot of sense: act your way into a new kind of thinking. Because our brain is neurologically wired to habitually thinking, it actually resists change. A shift in behavior is easier than a change in mindset. Although it’s great to think our way into a new kind of acting, the reverse happens more frequently. We make ourselves exercise, then we are convinced of its benefits; we let go of unhealthy behaviors, then we glimpse at freedom; we love first, then we learn to accept that difficult person. Fr Herbert McCabe said it well: “Prayer is like love; you won't really begin to understand until you do it.”

The First Letter of John challenges us: “If anyone says, ‘I love God, but hates this brother,’ he is liar for whoever does not love a brother or sister whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 Jn 4:20). It’s an application of “first love the human being next to you, then you will understand God later.”

The life of St Elizabeth Ann Seton’s  (1774-1821) whose feast we celebrate is a fascinating study of "na'aseh v'nishma”. She lived a tough childhood, married into a wealthy family, and quickly became a widow caring for five children and seven half-brothers.  Soon after her husband’s death, she converted to Catholicism and began this incredible outreach to the poor, sick, and uneducated. In a few short years, she laid the foundation for the American parochial school system that persists today. With each step of the way, she followed God’s will first, then grew to understand it later.

Can the Jewish idea of “Do First, Understand Later” help with our New Year’s resolutions or efforts to grow this year? Or with Jesus’ commandment to love?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Called Beloved: Tuesday of Christmas

“Beloved, we are God's children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” – 1 Jn 3:2 

Every day this week, First Letter of John addresses its audience as “Beloved.” On one level, this term, like “children,” is an expression of pastoral love found also in John’s Gospel. On another level, it has another meaning that both consoles and challenges.

In the Biblical world, the name stands for the person, reflecting the best hopes and desires of those who named him or her. John, in Hebrew means, “God is gracious.” Jesus in Hebrew means “God/Yahweh is salvation." Interestingly, the writings of John (the Gospel and Letters) very much unpack “grace upon grace” (Jn 1:16). The life of Jesus reveals a God who saves.

By addressing his audience “Beloved,” the author of John expresses both his care as well as hope for us. Among the things we can imagine ourselves to be, we are invited to consider ourselves as God’s Beloved. Despite what our past may have been or that we may be inclined to fear, skepticism, or being bounded by unhealthy habits, we are challenged to relate to God as someone who loves us personally, deeply, irrevocably.  As we are. Without reservations. Perhaps the term “Beloved” may not be your cup of tea. Yet, the twelve days of Christmas Season is about celebrating the Good News that God chooses to be with us in each moment and experience of life in a way that “saves” us from our worst selves, individually or collectively. The same Spirit of Yahweh who comes down and remains on Jesus also remains with us in each waking moment, continually empowering greater, fuller life in us.

To be honest, as consoling as this maybe, embracing myself as “Beloved” has not been easy, nor it is painless. For years, I lived in fear and saw myself as “inferior,” “victim,” “lost.” I am gradually being freed from these limiting shackles to imagine a way of relating with God that is more “real, intimate, life-giving.” Even though human words cannot communicate the name God has for me, terms like “Beloved” or “Delighted,”, “My Joy,” come close. They represent the way that God looks at me and calls me “home” to remain in God and be my best self with others. Interestingly, it is not unrelated to the name given to me by my parents. I am grateful that there are more and more people around who both encourages and calls me to live from this place of “Belovedness.” 

Take some time to imagine the way God looks at you; get in touch with the way God addresses you. Let this marinate within you these first days of the year.

Monday, January 2, 2012

What If?

"I am the voice of one crying out in the desert … I am not worthy to untie the sandal strap of the one who is coming after me.” – Jn 1:25, 27

With all the gift giving of Christmas and the resolution making of the New Year, it is easy to think that the spiritual life is about adding on. Just as upward mobility is the road to social success, the spiritual life is also about putting on and learning more so we can ascend to God. Yet, most saints (like Basil and Gregory we celebrate today) describe the spiritual journey as more unlearning than learning. They speak of a shedding off and a letting go more than an adding on. The figure of John the Baptist returns in today’s Gospel to remind us that “[Jesus] must increase; [he] must decrease.” (Jn 3:30).

As I begin 2012, it has been good for me to take some time of quiet, to unplug myself from electronic devices and even other people. I am able to rest in grace, to get touch with a deeper part of myself. Terry Hershey’s poem from his The Power of Pause is helpful for me to clear the path in the New Year:

"What if life isn’t about finishing on top,
but knowing when to stop?

What if life isn’t about learning to live with stress,
but learning to live with less?

What if life isn’t about pushing yourself to the limit,
but embracing everything minute?

What if life isn’t about constant action,
but eliminating distraction?

What if life isn’t about what you chase,
but resting in God's grace?"

Lord, help me rest more in Your love and care today and focus less on me and my worries.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A Simple Idea: The Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God

“As proof that you are sons [and daughters] God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then also an heir, through God.” – Gal 4:6-7

“And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” – Lk 2:19

There is a name so unique in the world that only one person, past, present, or future, can be called. The name is “Mother of God.” The Greek form of this name given to Mary — the mother of Jesus — is Theotokos, or literally, God-bearer. This name not only affirms who Mary is; it confirms who Jesus is, as God-with-us; it also attests to who we are: as children of God, as heirs of God.

It is easy to think that we are children of God, even as easy to proclaim it with our lips. But to believe this within our hearts, that is a challenge for a lifetime.

It occurs to me that an inception takes place in everyone’s life. The movie Inception suggests how a simple idea can transform a person’s life. If planted deep enough within a person’s consciousness, it will change everything. What if the simple idea is this: God loves you as you are, personally, uniquely, without condition, without limit? Moreover, you are God’s Beloved, no buts and ifs. When you and I believe this mystery and embrace it, our lives will change. 

For prayer-help today, I used this video a team of us made:

It helps me on this first day of 2012 to reflect on how this simple idea has taken root within me this past year – this inception through the Holy Spirit. I discover that in many ways, I am still the perfectionist, over-idealistic, willful person who struggles with balance. One who trusts mostly but still wants to take control when God seems absent or too slow. One who mainly accepts others but is often blinded by expectations.

Yet, there is a difference. I find myself responding with greater courage. The word “courage” has its roots from the Latin “cor” or the French “coeur” which means “heart.” It has been said that courage is sharing and acting from your whole heart. Communicating courageously is telling the story of who you are with your whole heart. Acting courageously is following deeper promptings from your whole heart. I still feel fear a lot of times. Yet, I find myself more willing to listen to God’s voice within, amidst my own self-doubts as well as others’ disbelief and questioning. I find myself responding more with Mary’s “yes” even though I do not know the details of the “how”. I am deeply grateful for this growth.

This inception to become God’s beloved takes a long time. Yet, the journey of a thousand leagues begins with one step. I find a joyful and hope-filled freshness to live this way, this first day of the year.

It is strange: when we take the risk to believe ourselves as God’s Beloved or to act from our whole heart, we become like Mary, Theotokos, God-bearer.

Let us begin this first day of the New Year asking for and reflecting on this dual grace:
“Lord, help me to trust that you-are-with-me, that I am your Beloved, especially in difficult moments today. Help me to discover concrete ways this year, to live from my whole heart.”

p.s. - Thank you Friends in the Lord, Companions on the Way, for being instrumental agents of grace in my life, for helping me grow in courage. Blessings of the New Year!