Dear Sister and Brother Vincentians:
Peace be with you. I hope that you and your family have made it successfully through yet another Michigan Winter. This year’s was particularly harsh. May the cold weather soon be behind us. Welcome to Spring!
We find ourselves well into the Lenten season, a period of preparation that is meant to remind us of Jesus’ forty days in the desert. But, especially in light of the truly disturbing backdrop of recent events, our challenge is to quiet ourselves and prepare to visit with God through prayer, repentance of sins, and reflection.
Last month, I spoke of gospels that addressed the challenges we face when dealing with both “neighbors” and “enemies”. It reflected upon our “external” struggle (i.e. how we choose to deal with others). That challenge involves the interplay between God’s two greatest commandments – love of God and love of neighbor.
This month’s column offers thoughts on prayer and then offers three reflections that may help to cope with powerful “internal” struggles (i.e. how we choose to deal with ourselves) that all of us wrestle with. Those struggles are depicted in a recent, well-known gospel that deals with temptation.
Like last month’s, the topic of temptation is particularly fitting for Lenten reflection. I share the following comments in the spirit of promoting continued growth in our core Vincentian values of spirituality and friendship. I do not have answers or even any particularly keen insights. As a fellow lay person, however, it is my hope that these comments cause you to think on things. If a thought or two helps you prepare for Easter just as you help me, even better.
1. Lent – Prayer – In the Name of the Father
Lent can be just another forty days in our march through yet another year. Lent can also be a time that invites us through prayer and reflection to come to terms with the human condition. If we choose to accept the invitation, Lenten prayer and reflection can bring our need for a Savior into better focus. It is a time to open the doors of our hearts a little wider and understand our Lord a little deeper. If we do, then when Good Friday and eventually Easter come, it is not just another day at church but an opportunity to receive the overflowing graces God has to offer.
Lent allows us to pause and examine our imperfections, whatever they may be, and return to the God who, through our shortcomings, we may have disappointed (or disregarded) time and again. Lent should not stop at sadness and despair, however. Rather, it should guide us to the hope of the Resurrection that Easter Sunday reminds us of annually. Prayer helps us to re-orient ourselves in a world filled with distractions and temptations.
Prayer can consist of beautiful recitations that we learn at an early age at our parents’ knee. “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.” It can also be more extemporaneous. “Good and gracious God, we feel your love and presence as we gather in your name.” It can and should also be much more inclusive. For example, any act of love, charity, mercy, or forgiveness is a meaningful kind of prayer. So, too, are daily activities undertaken in God’s name. It is not easy. But dedicating oneself to act with love in God’s honor can develop a mindset that helps one to stay the course when Life’s storm of temptations come as they surely will. As importantly, helping others do the same through daily personal choices of how one chooses to treat others is the best way, perhaps the only way, to stay focused on what really matters. Prayer can be anything thought, said, or done to evangelize the name of Jesus Christ.
In a real sense, our lives are a long, winding, complex, interrupted, joyous, sorrowful, evolving, and ofttimes messy prayer. “Prayer” should be a LOT more than prescribed words. Prayer should not be compartmentalized.
Lord, notwithstanding our world’s chaotic state, let us, in your name, commit to helping one another take a more prayerful approach to our daily lives and decisions. Let us also aspire to see one another in a more compassionate, forgiving light – just as Jesus surely sees us – each and every time another “falls short.” No matter how many times we or another falls, let our focus be on getting up or helping her/him up rather than criticizing the fall. Let us not be the “morals police.” Let us instead love thy neighbor as you love us. Amen.
2. Lent – Reflection I – Matthew’s Gospel (29:25) – “The rich get richer” – Who Is your Annie?
On February 27th, Fr. Steve Hurd, S.J. from Manresa Retreat House, graciously served as the keynote speaker at our Evening of Reflection. As those who attended know, he gave a masterful presentation. Because so many were not able to attend, I briefly reference two of his main points.
Fr. Hurd first referenced the gospel of Matthew, “the rich get richer, while the poor get poorer”. How can that be? Fr. Hurd then brilliantly questioned “what currency is one using” when making that inquiry. Money? Or love? When it is love, the passage makes incredible sense. It reminds one of another passage, typically used at wedding ceremonies, where St. Paul teaches the Corinthians that “Love is patient, love is kind. . . . So faith, hope, and love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Love begets more love.
This kind of love is difficult to experience, much less sustain. It needs to be nourished – reinforced – by the grace of God. In another sense, St. Paul describes this kind of love so that we may recognize and embrace it when it enters our lives.
Fr. Hurd then shared an example of this kind of selfless love. He spoke eloquently and candidly about a personal experience he had while serving on a Native American reservation in the Dakotas. He had agreed to tutor a struggling young lady, “Annie”, who was determined to obtain her high school equivalency degree. By all measures, Annie was a person of very limited economic means. In effect, she was a neighbor in need.
A few weeks into the tutoring, Annie asked Fr. Hurd if he would counsel her not only on her education, but on how to adopt a child as well. After all, Annie reasoned, since she had so much, it was only fitting that she help another in need. For Fr. Hurd, the poignant moment was yet another inspirational reminder of what he knew and what he had witnessed time and time again: one’s capacity to give – to love as St. Paul described – is a personal choice.
How often do we view our “neighbors in need” as less likely, perhaps even incapable, of helping others? To be sure, Vincentians serve. But, as we do, let us remain open to the possibility that we are the person in need. In that regard, who is your Annie?
3. Lent – Reflection II – Luke’s Gospel (4: 1-13) – Forty Days in the Desert
Luke’s gospel of Jesus being tempted in the desert is an incredibly personal one. It begins with the Spirit leading Jesus into the desert where Jesus stayed without nourishment for forty days. While it mentions the temple, it does not involve or even make reference to any other person. Rather, it depicts a conversation, a personal encounter between Jesus the man, struggling, worn down, and unnourished (i.e. vulnerable), and Satan. In that sense, this gospel could depict Jesus having a dream or reflection in a quiet moment. As we know, Satan tempts Jesus three times; and, each time, Jesus thwarts the temptations. Herein lies the “internal” aspect of this gospel. How often, especially when we feel vulnerable, do we experience the same internal struggle with temptations?
Practically speaking, when, in the solitude of our mind or heart, temptation comes calling, its allure can be irresistible. Its daily influence involves issues like personal advancement, e.g. greed, jealousy, hurtful rumors, revenge, bullying, hate, etc. v. selfless love of others. Our responses at these crossroads become “ambiguous.” If we use a “I am the center of the universe internal analysis”, there may seemingly always be “justification” for one’s actions as cruel or insensitive as they may be. To further complicate things, one’s past, particularly events that caused trauma and left scars, can arrive without invite and can add fiery spice to the decision-making process. It is in this collective sense that I use the term temptation as being anything that can distract us from living God’s will. Therein lies what should be the real topic of Lenten reflection.
A second, far more prevalent and nefarious internal barrier exists that stifles inclusion and acceptance of others, even accepting ourselves. It is a characteristic common to every human being: vulnerabilities. That can involve literally anything – real or perceived – that causes us to feel inadequate, insecure, or filled with doubt. They are temptations, too. Vulnerabilities contribute immeasurably to the complexities of the human condition. In our incredibly diverse world, the greatest commonality we share is vulnerability. How we choose to deal with them can be life changing.
Accepting “vulnerabilities” – in ourselves and others – miraculously converts crises into opportunities to grow. When we accept our own flaws, we tend to see others through more compassionate and forgiving eyes.
As we move along our “forty days of Lent”, let us reflect upon our discomforts with neighbors who are “different” and, perhaps more so, our unease with our own temptations and vulnerabilities, whatever they may be. As we do, let us realize that embracing them allows us to grow spiritually. Rather than rue our shortcomings, therefore, let us thank God for the miracle of imperfections!
As the classic poem, Desiderata, reminds, “. . . with all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.”
4. Lent – Reflection III – “Thy” will v. My will (i.e. temptations)
Let us pause and reflect upon the true nature of our “internal” struggle. How often have we recited the Lord’s Prayer? In it, we say, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done”. God’s will, not ours. Is it between God and “Satan”? Or is it more akin to Thy will v. My will? Each of us is surely capable of acting “God-like” (e.g. loving others) and “Un-God-like” (i.e. you get the picture). Temptations, vulnerabilities, and ghosts from one’s past can create turbulent internal storms that make it truly difficult to be God-like to others.
Whose will do you aspire to? Clearly, what God teaches us to do and what we want to do is ofttimes sympatico. When a “conflict” arises, however, how often do we choose “my will”? “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” That is what we ask for each and every time we recite the Lord’s Prayer.
By design, humans are flawed. Especially in a society like ours that constantly bombards us with concepts of perfection (e.g. beauty, wealth, femininity, masculinity, success, even happiness), the harsh impact of imperfections and self-critical analysis can be depressing, even devastating. None of us measures up. So our willingness to see ourselves and others “as is”, flaws and all, is how God enters our lives, our world.
When we let shortcomings control our behavior, we tend to focus on our shortcomings and frailties. Let us choose instead to focus on the boundless power of God. When we live and act in His name, anything becomes possible. Choosing to do so will help make compassion contagious. “Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.”
Lenten tradition calls for “giving up” something. But think about what “giving” could create. To be sure, every nod, every smile, every interaction can change the course of someone else’s day. We wield that influence in either a positive or negative way. Choose to empower others. It may be the most important act of kindness you can extend to another; and it is free. How can one do so? Stated simply, just as Jesus did, use love as your currency. If necessary, use it first during Lent and then all year round. And remain open to “finding your Annie”.
Asnat Greenberg believes that empowering another means stifling the temptations of gratuitously criticizing, judging, being mean or cynical, and curbing one’s ego. Instead, one should smile at others, praise them, acknowledge them, thank them, and wish them a good day. Simply stated, the choice to empower others makes our world a better place. It may also make each of us happier, better people.
Secondly, God does not give up on us because we have flaws. If so, He’d give up on everyone! He loves us because of our flaws! Thy will, not my will. The gospel tells us that the Spirit led Jesus into his desert – just as the Spirit leads us into our personal deserts of temptations, vulnerabilities, and nightmares from the past. Our challenge is not to avoid them as much as to deal with them through conscience formation, e.g. acknowledge, repent, forgive, love. Then and only then can the barren fig tree bear fruit. Just as Jesus forgives us, so too should we strive to forgive others. Indeed, formation comes with the mindfulness of our flaws together with a humility and determination to do something about them.
The future has not yet been written!
Finally, we live in a world uncomfortable in its own skin. We have suffered through so many horrific massacres, the latest in New Zealand. God have mercy on all of the poor victims and survivors of such senseless tragedies. Our Church and government have been rocked with scandals. And, for several reasons, during the last two decades, our U.S. Catholic Church has suffered its most dramatic exodus, particularly among millennials. We surely must make time for prayer. Prayer needs to include not only quiet, personal reflection, but also proactive evangelization (i.e. we must live the Good Word of the Gospels).
Finding your “Annie”, committing to Thy will be done, empowering others, making time to pray, and “fostering a hope (for others) that will shine more clearly” – sounds like a perfect combination to prepare for our most holy day of the year.
Let us go and serve the Lord by serving all who we meet. God bless.