Friday, March 31, 2017

Prayer: Pope Francis

Being a Christian is not just following the commandments, but means being in Christ, thinking like him, acting like him, loving like him; it means letting him take possession of our lives and change them, transform them, free them from the darkness of evil and sin.

Art Awards Lecture at BC High

Art Awards Lecture at BC High

During retreats, Ignatius of Loyola asks the one who is praying to keep sight of the larger picture. With that in mind, I begin with a quote from Mary Oliver:

When life is over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument. I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

I want to echo the words of Mary Oliver by saying: I try to live fully engaged in all things so that I can say: I have really lived well. I want to celebrate what is right in the world.

As a young boy, I became excited about history and geography projects because I was able to devote time to drawing maps. To my astonishment, years later I found out my grandfather was a map-maker in World War I.

I enjoyed arts and crafts, but I had an older brother who received great acclaim for his drawings. He won awards and was good, so I never even bothered to spend any time developing my artistic skills because the family already had its artist. I had to find another purpose, so I devoted myself to intellectual pursuits, which I found fascinating, but I was not creating through art. I found new ways to create. I decided for myself that I would never be good enough as an artist. I gave myself poor advice and I listened to it.

I became a successful manager of technology projects at Eastern Bank, where I received affirmation upon affirmation, awards upon awards. I was mostly happy that the trajectory of my career was unfolding admirably, but I kept trying to find something deeper, something that would provide the proverbial cherry of meaning on the top of an ice cream sundae, what we call the magis, in my work.

Christ continued to speak to me to say: Come along. Let’s take a detour on this path. Mary Oliver again captures it well is this poem from West Wind:

Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches of other lives --
tried to imagine what the crisp fringes, full of honey, hanging
from the branches of the young locust trees, in early morning, feel like?

Do you think this world was only an entertainment for you?

Never to enter the sea and notice how the water divides
with perfect courtesy, to let you in!
Never to lie down on the grass, as though you were the grass!
Never to leap to the air as you open your wings over the dark acorn of your heart!

No wonder we hear, in your mournful voice, the complaint
that something is missing from your life!

Something was missing from my life. Entering the Jesuits was a crucial step for my life’s purpose and greater meaning because I received the privilege of entering into the long black branches of other lives, and I learned how to behold the person before me the way that God does. I continue to find my soul’s fulfillment as a Jesuit priest to give my life in service to others, but a funny thing happened along the way.

As Catholics, we are both a “now and not yet” people, meaning that we live fully for today but in realization of the world that is to come, and we are also a “both and” people. Choices do not have to be mutually exclusive. Christ showed me this during my ministry as pastor to the English-speaking people of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Since I was in a foreign land and I wanted something familiar, I sought out a chorus since I sang in the United States. I wanted to maintain work-life balance by finding a singing group that was English and Arabic. My attempts to find something was frustrating, so I asked a parishioner if she knew of any places that taught oil painting, an idea I had never entertained previously. What was I seeking?: a way to express my real self. I was in an unfamiliar culture and my ability to relate to others well was going to take some time, however, my art interests were about helping me relate to myself. I was challenged by demands all around me, but I was intrigued. I thought of the continuation of the quote from Mary Oliver.

Who can open the door who does not reach for the latch?
Who can travel the miles who does not put one foot
in front of the other, all attentive to what presents itself continually?
Who will behold the inner chamber who has not observed
with admiration, even with rapture, the outer stone?

Well, there is time left -- fields everywhere invite you into them.

And who will care, who will chide you if you wander away
from wherever you are, to look for your soul?

Quickly, then, get up, put on your coat, leave your desk!

I had to leave my desk and my adventure was just to begin. My priesthood has always been about hospitality and moving the Gospel outwards to those who doubt that God has any time for them. Partially, this is developed because my older sister was born with profound mental retardation and I always sought to have her voice heard. She deserved to be loved as a person just as you and I deserve to be honored and respected. Because of what she taught me, I want my priesthood, through my artwork, to help convey something meaningful. Art is real when it is attached to meaningfulness within our souls.

An Iraqi art teacher gave me drawing lessons, and after a short while he demanded that I learn to paint. Dipping my brush into oil paint felt real. I was part of a co-creating process, though I had no skills or knowledge. It was secretly fun and a little scary. Why scary? Because art exposes a person’s soul, just like a solo singer cannot hide from his or her voice. In the end, it is all you’ve got. Art communicates something essential and fundamental about a person’s perspective and vision. Art is truth, beauty, and it is real. Art is personal. An artist cannot hide from his or her work.

As I applied my first brush strokes to a blank canvas, I also stepped onto a theatre’s stage for the first time. Priest’s are typically reserved about they physical world, but I was asked to sing and to dance and to act on stage. This was more than I was seeking. I wanted to hide within a chorus.

Instead, I sang the Messiah in Arabic and I spent nights training my ear to listen to Arabic so I could perform in an improvised musical performance with a dreaded microphone taped to my mouth. The show, which was performed before a live audience a dozen times, was to be aired on Roya’ TV to be shown year after year. As a Catholic, I was part of a group that brought the first Christmas musical to the Muslim nation; we sang Hallelujah at Christ’s birth in a language similar to his native language – to a nation that never heard it performed before on its own soil – the very same soil where Our Lord walked, healed, and prayed.

You cannot run from art.

Art seeks the true self. You, like the Arts, have to find that true self. Only then can you be given and received as gifts. Ignatian spirituality teaches us that we are gifts to ourselves, gifts that are to be shared fully.

I discovered that being a priest and artist are entirely compatible. The theme of my priesthood is to celebrate what is right in the world. As a photographer, my camera captures the beauty I find in the common parts of our day, even in places of neglect and disregarded places. Everything has inherent beauty and the smallest details, the most overlooked parts, have a story to communicate. Sometimes I will go on a photo shoot with friends and when we share our photos, they ask, “Were we on the same walk? I don’t recognize anything about what you captured? Why did I not see this beauty?”

Whatever art we produce, it has to communicate a greater meaning. It is terrific to show a beautiful flower, but does it tell a larger story? If not, then it is merely a beautiful image, but it becomes art when it communicates a mood, a theme, when it makes people wonder, when it is given a title, when a tiny nearly-undiscovered detail brings meaning to a person’s consciousness, which causes them to say, “I want this.”

God speaks to us through our physical senses, which touches our heart and mind, which invigorates the imagination that gives meaning to our experiences. How do I choose? How does my art reveal my fundamental way I see the world? Can my pursuit of art express my vision of God’s world as richly as possible?

My new art career is taking me to places I never thought possible. I teach art and theology at Creighton University in Omaha, and in two weeks I am giving a creativity retreat in Stockholm, Sweden to those who want their prayer life to be enhanced from their traditional prayer devotions. The world is about unfolding who you are – gently, slowly, patiently, and letting the world behold you.

Parents, you have already blessed your sons by supporting their creative endeavors. You are launching them well. Do not forget to invest in yourself, for it is not too late. Come on a photo shoot with us, let’s plan a night of painting or making zen-tangles, join a local chorus, and watch how you discover a new gift. It is frightening. I’ve been asked to sing a solo and a duet for a Mendelssohn concert and it terrifies me, and what an exciting feeling that is. Let yourself feel once again. God may be inviting you on a new adventure. Give yourself over to it, and your life will be enriched.

I’ll conclude with another portion of Mary Oliver’s poems, called “A Summer Day.”

I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Prayer: Thomas Merton

It is not dutiful observance that keeps us from sin, but something far greater: it is love. And this love is not something that we develop by our own powers alone. It is a sublime gift of the divine mercy, and the fact that we live in the realization of this mercy and this gift is the greatest source of growth for our love and for our holiness.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Fifth Sunday of Lent

The Fifth Sunday of Lent
April 2, 2017
Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

            In a final decisive act during his ministry, Jesus exerts command over death, the final tyrant, and his raising of Lazarus from the dead gives his disciples a chance to marvel at the possibilities of Resurrection. Jesus makes it clear that Lazarus dies because the body decomposes by the fourth day. Jesus did not heal Lazarus or revive him. Lazarus was not sleeping or in a coma from a medical condition. Lazarus was dead, and his body stunk. Jesus was able to reveal the power of God as one who has authority not only over life, but also over death.

            The idea of the resurrection is the basis for our belief that we will overcome death and rise again in Christ. Saint Paul says Christ’s resurrection transforms our lives today, empowering us to reject sin and to live in righteousness. This allows us, every time we gather, to see the death of Jesus as a positive because we will rise with him in a new life.

            The most moving part of this whole passage is when Jesus approaches the tomb of Lazarus and weeps. He knows his own death is near; the time of his handing-over will happen in Jerusalem at the Passover, and yet, he is visibly affected by his friend’s death. In his prayer, he begs God to raise Lazarus from the dead, not only because it will bring God glory, but because Lazarus means a lot of him. The compassion of God takes center stage here. God is sympathetic to the emotions of Jesus, and God knows that soon, because of his great love, he will raise Jesus from the dead.

            Something inside me dies when I hear of someone’s death because death just is not fair. In fact, it is perplexing. I wonder if the dying knows of God’s personal love for them while they are alive. That is what I want most of all. I wonder if they can soak in the love that is around them because all too often there is too much ambiguity and unresolved relationships. Many people watch loved ones die, and there is not a chance to reconcile past hurts. We try to speak well of the dead, but we always do not have the happiest memories, and yet our charity rises to the surface. Death is seldom easy, even for the aged person whose life is full of integrity. We, as church, can do better to console those who find themselves alone after a loved one’s death as they struggle to reorganize daily schedules and maintain friendships. Death is confusing. Death is chaotic. Death even makes Jesus cry. He knows that Lazarus will die again.

            Physical death is sad, and a living death is tragic. By living death, I mean those times when we kill the spirit of another person, for instance, when we displace people because of war, tell a young girl she cannot do something she believes she can do, limit a person’s potential because we do not want them to succeed at someone else’s expense, or we send them away because they are different from us. Bullying, intimidation, exclusion, force, violence, and anger are many ways we kill another person. It is perhaps more tragic than physical death. No. This is not what God wants. This is a God of life, a God who can bring new life from death. Let us not get in the way of this good God. Instead, let us help God by resurrecting the broken spirits of those around us.

            Ezekiel says, “I will open your graves and have your rise from them. O my people. I will put my spirit in you that you may live. I have promised and I will do it.”

            What death in your soul needs new life? We all have disappointments, failures, betrayals, shame, and hurt that need to be healed. I suggest we name these areas: Lazarus. Let us hear the words of Jesus as he pours his heart and soul in prayer to God and he cries out: Lazarus, come out. Untie him and let him go.

Scripture for Daily Mass

First Reading:
Monday: (Daniel 13) Daniel’s sharp advocacy skills spare the life of Susannah who has been unjustly accused of immoral sexual relationships.
Tuesday: (Numbers 21) As the wandering Israelites passed through the desert near the Red Sea, many are bitten by seraph serpents, but Moses erected a bronze serpent that he lifted up for those bitten to gaze upon the image and be cured.
Wednesday: (Isaiah 7) Annunciation: Ahaz is tempted by the Lord to ask for a sign but he will not. The Lord gives it anyways: the virgin shall conceive and bear a son named Emmanuel.
Thursday: (Genesis 17) The Lord said to Abraham: You are to become the father of a host of nations. You will become fertile; kings will stem from you.  
Friday: (Jeremiah 20) Terror on every side. Let us denounce him. The Lord is with me like a mighty champion.
Saturday: (Ezekiel 37) My dwelling shall be with my people. I will be their God and they shall be my people.  

Monday: (John 8) A woman caught in adultery is brought to Jesus for a verdict, but he does not answer as he calls upon those who are without sin to cast the first stone.
Tuesday: (John 8) Jesus tells the Pharisees that they will lift up the Son of Man and will then realized that I AM.
Wednesday: (Luke 1) Gabriel was sent to Mary of Nazareth to inform her that she has been chosen by the Lord to bear a son who will be called holy, the Son of God.
Thursday: (John 8) Whoever keeps my words will never see death. Abraham rejoiced to see my day; he saw it and was glad.
Friday: (John 10) The Jews picked up rocks to stone Jesus, but he wanted to know for which of the works he was condemned. He went back across the Jordan and remained there.
Saturday: (John 11) Many came to believe in Jesus. Caiaphas asked, “do you consider that it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people?”

Saints of the Week

No saints are included in the calendar this week as it is often Holy Week or Easter Week.

This Week in Jesuit History

·      Apr 2, 1767. Charles III ordered the arrest of all the Jesuits in Spain and the confiscation of all their property.
·      Apr 3, 1583. The death of Jeronimo Nadal, one of the original companions of Ignatius who later entrusted him with publishing and distributing the Jesuit Constitutions to the various regions of the early Society.
·      Apr 4, 1534. Peter Faber (Pierre Favre) ordained a deacon in Paris.
·      Apr 5, 1635. The death of Louis Lallemant, writer and spiritual teacher.
·      Apr 6, 1850. The first edition of La Civilta Cattolica appeared. It was the first journal of the restored Society.
·      Apr 7, 1541. Ignatius was unanimously elected general, but he declined to accept the results.
·      Apr 8, 1762. The French Parliament issued a decree of expulsion of the Jesuits from all their colleges and houses.
·      Apr 9, 1615. The death of William Weston, minister to persecuted Catholics in England and later an author who wrote about his interior life during that period.
·      Apr 10, 1585. At Rome, the death of Pope Gregory XIII, founder of the Gregorian University and the German College, whose memory will ever be cherished as that of one of the Society's greatest benefactors.

·      Apr 11, 1573. Pope Gregory XIII suggested to the Fathers who were assembling for the Third General Congregation that it might be well for them to choose a General of some nationality other than Spanish. Later he expressed his satisfaction that they had elected Everard Mercurian, a Belgian.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Prayer: Ignatius of Loyola

O Jesus, when all is darkness and we feel our weakness, give us the sense of your presence, your love, and your strength. Help us to have perfect trust in your protecting love and strengthening power, so that nothing may frighten or worry us, for, living close to you, we shall see your hand, your purpose, your will through all things.