Category Archives: LENT

LENT: Presence

ImageAs a household, we decided to spend fifteen minutes in silence together once a week, early in the morning when we are all theoretically available. We are rarely all there; in fact I think our average is two. But on the times we have dragged ourselves out of bed early enough to help get the breakfast ready before meeting in the dark living room at 6am, we are not sorry.  We try to do as we’ve been taught and empty our heads of plans and memories and even of the strangeness of sitting quietly in the dark when there is so much to do and we would rather be sleeping.  We try not to think of this, or anything.  The goal is simply to be there. Almost always, there are moments of success – if only for a few seconds.   Most of us agree that our very modest, weekly practice of remaining still and present in the moment stays with us for a bit and sometimes allows us to experience more deeply the people and events we’re heading for later in the day.

Sometimes it is almost magical.  Somehow, instead of thinking about the level of coffee remaining in the pot and counting in our heads the number left to serve, we can listen to the guest telling us about his family’s farm in Tennessee. We remember the name of the farm late in the day.  We notice and marvel that a woman’s poems sound like those of another poet we’ve read and how these two, separated by over a century, see things so similarly. We remember who prefers their coffee black and to ask about the bike ride to St. Augustine. The two hours of serving breakfast to neighbors seems exactly like two hours of serving breakfast to neighbors – not a chore on a checklist before the next thing.  Sometimes we are really present.

Catholics have an interesting doctrine about “the real presence” – that the body and blood of Jesus are actually present in food, specifically the bread and wine that has been blessed at mass.  Actually there, transformed at the moment the prayer is prayed into flesh and blood – not just symbolically.  This hurts our modern ears. We understand that the chemical composition of bread and wine are the same with or without prayers and incense.  But still we have experienced a mystical presence.  Some of us have indeed felt it at the moment the prayer of “consecration” is prayed, when we feel transformed in the community of kneeling pray-ers, desiring the same thing together – that we be one, and become as one with our creator.  Many more of us have experienced it outside of church.

It is a human experience, universal.  A dear friend is far away, but he lies heavy on our hearts, and  weighs on our mind, as if concretely here.  We experience a beloved parent who has dementia – and whom we saw twice a year during the best of times – constantly present to us in the landscape or at moments of decision, the places we have been together, the person we are.  A friend who died over a year ago walks beside you as you see things through her eyes and hear her voice clearly.  The presence grows without bounds as if these loved ones are physically with us at their most vital.  When Latino people hail one who has died as ¡presente! – I think this is what is meant.  We have been transformed as a person or community by someone no longer here physically, but who lives on in us. We feel those we can no longer touch. We hear those who can no longer speak. It is mystical to the point of feeling magical. And it is real.

Real presence is connection – to ourselves and our own lives, and to our Creator. The quiet practice of it, sitting still in a dark room, is a discipline. But the growing expansiveness of presence in our daily lives ­is perhaps the most profoundly real thing we can experience. Our eyes begin to open to sparrows and mustard seeds, the lilies in the field, the lost sheep, the person across the room praying with us and the one on his way for a cup of coffee. “It went by so fast,” said a friend’s dying father before he took his last breath.  Be here now.




Years ago, I gave a talk to some college students about the Catholic Worker House and was describing the Breakfast Brigade, a project we were running at the time where folks would arrive at 4am to bake bread, boil eggs and prepare fruit, and then bring it all out to the labor pools where day laborers were arriving at 6am in hopes of work. I was trying to describe the atmosphere during the wee hours of the morning, and I used the word “fun.” I was corrected by a frequent participant, who was from Mexico and had a precision about language that speakers of English as a second language tend to have. It was “joy,” he said, not fun, that we experienced.

This immediately rang true to me, and I have wondered about the nature of “joy” since.  Recently I read an essay by Zadie Smith, a British writer who has wondered the same thing:

 It might be useful to distinguish between pleasure and joy. But maybe everybody does this very easily, all the time, and only I am confused. A lot of people seem to feel that joy is only the most intense version of pleasure, arrived at by the same road—you simply have to go a little further down the track. That has not been my experience. And if you asked me if I wanted more joyful experiences in my life, I wouldn’t be at all sure I did, exactly because it proves such a difficult emotion to manage. It’s not at all obvious to me how we should make an accommodation between joy and the rest of our everyday lives.

Part of the problem with making that accommodation is that, as Smith says, “great struggle . . . tends to precede joy.”  I have found this to be mostly true.  During a terrible time in my family’s life, shortly after we had been informed that one of our sons, a teenager at the time, had cancer and might not survive, I ran into a friend of mine.  His warm hug and kind eyes were a comfort, but then he said something incomprehensible to me at the time – that he could see already how many lives Ben’s suffering had touched and all the kindness and generosity his illness was motivating.  Suddenly I wanted to punch him. Let someone else’s son‘s suffering produce all this goodness.  He should know better how to comfort the afflicted, I thought; he was a Catholic priest.  It would be many months before I could make the connection between the sorrow we were experiencing and the strange eruption of joy amidst it. My friend had been in the US because he had been run out of Mexico for caring for the poorest of the poor and thereby threatening some of the most powerful of the rich. He knew deep grief and suffering – and joy.  Clearly, joy is not fun at all, and can be totally disconnected from pleasure of any kind. It is standing stock still in the kitchen with a phone in your hand, as if before a firing squad, waiting for the test results, and the bullet misses. The test result is negative, and joy suddenly descends upon the house of grief.

But it is not the grief, or the fear, or even the relief. Joy requires something more.  It is not the alarm clock ringing at 3:00 am or the warm loaves rising, and it is not the sudden absence of rogue blasts in the blood.  Joy requires more than simple hardship followed by success. It is the sleepy crowd of bakers stumbling into the kitchen on Friday morning at the same time the worker is emerging from his sleeping bag; it is the person on the other end of the line, and the one in the hospital bed. It’s all the others in hospital beds, in hospitals everywhere, all the mothers worrying about their children, all the children. I am saying it now, like the priest did to me.  Joy is connected to suffering, but it erupts in the recognition of community.

Lent tries to give some of this to us, or to remind us of it. We start our Lenten practices together. If we are in a state of relative peace and abundance, we create deprivation for ourselves – no meat, or no TV, no snacks or electronics – something we will miss.  And, if we are normal, we will feel a twinge of suffering at the loss.  “First-world problems,” as they say, but it is true that in times of abundance we tend to need the ascetic practices, tried and true. We do it within a community of people similarly deprived and somewhat ridiculously aggrieved. We support each other, we tell stories, we kindle empathy and solidarity. And slowly, over the six weeks of Lent, we begin to experience the glimmer of the deep connection to one another that lies under the surface of all sorrow. We try to remember what we have learned and steel ourselves for the deep reality of who we are when it comes. Because it will, and we will meet it together.  This, I believe, is joy.

– Kelli


Anti-Gang Groups-Bailout

One dictionary definition of the word awe is “wonder, but with more reverence.”  If you have an hour or so this week, please consider watching this interview with Greg Boyle. Boyle is a Jesuit priest, founder of Homeboy Industries, author of Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion and works with gang members in East Los Angeles.  It would take several listens to glean all the insight from this interview, which ranges from inspirational stories about individuals he has met to the church’s role in the world and potential contribution at this stage in history.  He was particularly moving when he likened the serious struggles of some of the young people he knows to the early Christian community described in the Acts of the Apostles. The link was awe.

We often hear this familiar story of the early church as a sweet and inspiring description of a Utopian moment from long ago. Boyle studied it as an actual measure of the health of any community – that they “take care of each other,” “no one goes hungry,” etc.  When he came upon the phrase, “and awe came upon everyone,” a real light went on. What if, he asked, the measure of our compassion lies not in our service to those on the margins but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship? How can we seek a compassion that can stand in awe at what people have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it?

We have known this feeling on occasion, and it is as good as it is rare.  The defensive, overly-stressed version of ourselves wants everyone to please just behave themselves and for the world to shape up in general. We’re quick to judge what is wrong on all sides of any situation. But there are moments of grace – unwarranted and unexpected – when the curtain is drawn and we see things a little more truly as they are, or at least might be in a Divine Mother’s eyes.  Then we feel it: kinship – the recognition that we are actually brothers and sisters, and  awe at the resilience in others instead of recoil from the brokenness.


{image: from Kevin & Linds}

LENT: Week six, Saturday – Practice Resurrection

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry, The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

LENT: Week six, Good Friday – Salvation

Many years ago now, when I was invited to speak at a church gathering, my host said, “Tell us what is saving your life now.” It was such a good question that I have made a practice of asking others to answer it even as I continue to answer it myself. Salvation is so much more than many of its proponents would have us believe. In the Bible, human being experience God’s salvation when peace ends war, when food follows famine, when health supplants sickness and freedom trumps oppression. Salvation is a word for the divine spaciousness that comes to human beings in all the tight places where their lives are at risk, regardless of how they got there or whether they know God’s name. Sometimes it comes as an extended human hand and sometimes as a bolt from the blue, but either way it opens a door in what looked for the world like a wall. This is the way of life, and God alone knows how it works.

Barbara Brown Taylor

LENT: Week six, Thursday – Recollection

Sometimes from sorrow, for no reason,
you sing. For no reason, you accept
the way of being lost, cutting loose from all else and electing a world where you go
where you want to.

Arbitrary, sound comes, a reminder
that a steady center is holding
all else. If you listen, that sound will tell where it is, and you can slide your way past trouble.

Certain twisted monsters
always bar the path—but that’s when you get going best, glad to be lost, learning how real it is
here on the earth, again and again.

William Stafford, Cutting Loose

LENT: Week six, Wednesday – You don’t have that kind of time

When I was 38, my best friend, Pammy, died, and we went shopping about two weeks before she died, and she was in a wig and a wheelchair. I was buying a dress for this boyfriend I was trying to impress, and I bought a tighter, shorter dress than I was used to. And I said to her, ‘Do you think this makes my hips look big?’ and she said to me, so calmly, ‘Anne, you don’t have that kind of time.’ And I think Easter has been about the resonance of that simple statement; and that when I stop, when I go into contemplation and meditation, when I breathe again and do the sacred action of plopping and hanging my head and being done with my own agenda, I hear that, ‘You don’t have that kind of time,’ you have time only to cultivate presence and authenticity and service, praying against all odds to get your sense of humor back.

Anne Lamott

LENT: Week six, Tuesday – Belonging

Early-stage religion is more about belonging and believing than about transformation.  When belonging and believing are the primary concerns, people don’t see their need for growth, healing, or basic spiritual curiosity.  Once we let the group substitute for an inner life or our own faith journey, all we need to do is “attend.”  For several centuries, church has been more a matter of attendance at a service than an observably different lifestyle.  Membership requirements and penalties predominated, not the change-your-life message that Jesus so clearly preached.

Membership questions lead to endless arguments about who is in and who is out, who is right and who is wrong, who is worthy of our God, and who is not.  Such distinctions appeal to our ego and its need to feel worthy and superior and to be part of a group that defines itself by exclusion.  The church ends up a gated country club, giving people a false sense of superiority.  This is why Jesus walks to those on the edges: the handicapped, the sinners, the excluded ones.

Richard Rohr

LENT: Week six, Monday – Discipline

Are there any disciplines to keep us moving from dividing power to uniting power, from destructive power to healing power, from paralyzing power to enabling power? Let me suggest three disciplines that can help us look from above with the eyes of God:

  • The first discipline is to focus continually on the poor in this world. We must keep asking ourselves: Where are the men, women and children who are waiting for us to reach out to them? Poverty in all its forms–physical, intellectual and emotional–is not decreasing. On the contrary, the poor are everywhere around us. As the powers of darkness show their hideous intentions with increasing crudeness, the weeping of the poor becomes louder and their misery more visible. We have to keep listening. We have to keep looking.
  • The second discipline is to trust that God will truly care for the poor that are given to us. We will have the financial, emotional and physical support we need, when we need it, and to the degree that we need it. I am convinced that there is a large body of people ready to help with money, time and talent. But that body will remain invisible unless we dare to take new risks. If we want to have all our bases covered before we act, nothing exciting will happen. But if we dare to take a few crazy risks because God asks us to do so, many doors, which we didn’t even know existed, will be opened for us.
  • The third discipline is the hardest one. It is the discipline of being surprised, not by suffering, but by joy…. There is suffering ahead of us, immense suffering, a suffering that will continue to tempt us to think that we have chosen the wrong road and that others were more shrewd than we. But don’t be surprised by pain. Be surprised by joy. Be surprised by the little flower that shows its beauty in the midst of a barren desert. And be surprised by the immense healing power that keeps bursting forth like a spring of fresh water from the depth of our pain.

With an eye focused on the poor, a heart trusting that we will get what we need, and a spirit always surprised by joy, we will be truly powerful. We will walk through this valley of darkness performing miracles because it is God’s power that will go out from us wherever we go and whomever we meet.

Henri Nouwen,  Power, Powerlessness and Power

LENT: Week six, Sunday – Church

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

– Annie Dillard

[photo: two of the famous stained glass windows of Sainte Chapelle in Paris, where French royalty once prayed – located a few steps from the Conciergie, aka “the antechamber to the guillotine”]