Blindness, insight, and healing

All of today’s readings take up the theme of blindness and sight. In the first reading, nobody even thinks to look for David as the sons of Jesse are lined up to be chosen as king.  Eventually David is brought out of his hiddenness as the shepherd, and into the view of Samuel who anoints him.God tells Samuel that God sees the human heart and discerns its inner nature in ways that human beings do not. We pay attention to how the person appears from the outside, but God understands the complexities of human hearts from the inside.Though no one will know and understand David and his complex personality as well as God does, David becomes seen and known by others differently when he is anointed. God makes visible what was previously invisible.

Similarly, the Psalm speaks in the voice of a person who is treated to a banquet, in the sight of his foes, who do not understand his soul. God gives light in darkness, offers peace in times of distress, and restores reputation by spreading the feast before the beloved one, in the sight of all those who disparage him. When I read the lines about the banquet of the Lord, I think of the Eucharist, and the feast that is offered to all of us, sinners, imperfect people still growing and learning how to love. God sees the true nature of our hearts, as our “enemies” often do not, and his response to our trials and difficulties is to lavish gifts upon the beloved one.

Jesus’ healing of the blind man also is about sight and insight, at many different levels. Of course, there is the healing of physical sight. There are the many kinds of metaphorical blindness surrounding this event. The Pharisees are divided between recognizing Jesus as coming from God, and those who see him as against God because he does not follow the rules of the Sabbath in the way that they expect. The latter group is focused on rules and legalism instead of rejoicing in healing. They cannot see Jesus’ love is the fundamental reality of his ministry, and healing as more important than legalism. They even assume the blind man is blind due to some sort of a sin of his own. Even the parents are fearful and deflect criticism by throwing it back on their son to speak. They cannot see what is going on.

But two people in the story do see: the blind man given sight sees Jesus and understands that Jesus is the Messiah. He trusts in his own experience of the divine, even when those around him call it into question because it does not fit with their own categories. And Jesus sees: he sees the blind man not as a sinner but as a person in need of healing. God knows and loves the most interior spaces of the human heart, more like a mother or father who lovingly understands the missteps of a child than like a judge.

In Lent, we are like the blind man; we need to allow the Lord to heal us where we are in need of healing, and to ask God to help us to see where we need to see. We all have “blind spots” in our lives about others. This is a worthwhile topic for prayer, to ask the Lord to help us to see a new perspective on some situation–for example, we can imaginatively pray with the passage of the blind man, from his perspective. What does the Lord wish for us to see about this situation? We can ask the Lord to open our eyes and to let something further enter into our perspective.

Even if we do not come to understand another fully,  simply knowing this reality about our own limits of perspective can encourage us to give the other the benefit of the doubt: instead of assuming another is an enemy, assume the other is a person with a complex heart, trying to live out his or her life the best that she can at this moment. We are also called to be more like Jesus, who does not judge the human person by appearance, but rather seeks to know the human heart, to heal and to accompany.

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The well is deep

Today’s gospel reading tells the story of the woman from Samaria. In it we hear a metaphor in which Jesus is said to be living water. Water is a wonderful image for interior spiritual movements for many reasons. For example, it captures the fluidity of God’s activity within or the stillness of peace. Since water is essential to life, understanding that God is our living water names a fundamental need for God.

Here I’m especially struck by the woman’s claim that the well is deep. Though she’s talking about the well the author of the gospel includes it because it also images her soul and the human soul. We as human beings are characterized by longing and have desires that are often too deep for us even to see. The soul is a deep place. It sounds as though the physical well the woman visited went down far such that if one lowers in the bucket only a little, no water. But with the right equipment, there is plenty to drink.

The soul is like that, too. Superficial desires don’t address our thirst: money, honor, many markers of traditional success. Even some relationships–like the woman’s five husbands-while important don’t go deeply enough. But way down there inside the human spirit there is water. And that water quenches our thirst, refreshes, sustains, and stills us. That water is Jesus, who is Living Water.

What’s the equipment? Prayer and patience—and a willingness to go into the depths of the well. There are many ways to pray but if we follow our thirst, God provides the water.

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Transfiguration and the ordinary

In today’s readings, we see Jesus transfigured. From a historical point of view, Matthew places Jesus in continuity with Elijah and Moses. Biblical scholars tell us that Matthew has a primarily Jewish audience, so his account of Jesus frequently compares him to Moses, but as beyond Moses. He is placed in the tradition of the prophets, who spoke on behalf of God and urged people to reform their ways and to follow the Lord. So there is not only the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain to consider, but also our own transformations, and even transfigurations, in a metaphorical sense.

When I reflect back on major transition points in my life—the birth of my children, a midlife crisis, or shifts in my spiritual life —they, too, are moments of transfiguration. For example, as a mother of a newborn baby, my life shifted from being primarily about myself to being primarily about this other being. Everything in my day suddenly became about tending to the needs of my baby–comforting, changing diapers, nursing, and a lot of waking up in the middle of the night! There are a lot of joyful moments–mostly happy ones–but also times when we have to “be the parent “and do for the child what our own egoistic child selves don’t want to do (e.g., waking up to clean up vomit and comfort a sick child for the fifth time in one night!). Becoming a parent is not only about a change in the externals but also an internal transfiguration, as one chooses to set aside a certain amount of egoism and do whatever benefits another. In that transition from self love to other centered love,  all the little happy moments and also all the little, painful moments add up to a cumulative kind of change in oneself and the other. Parenthood makes us more other centered than we were as single people or even as a married couple. Transfiguration.

For Peter and James, their desire is to make tents and to stay on the mountain. But in fact, they have to come down from the experience again and return to normal life. On the mountaintop, they experience awe and fear. But the more important task is to integrate that mountain top experience into ordinary life. Here, I think also about spiritual experiences that we may have–moments where God is present, in a palpable, if not awesome way. We can try to stay in those moments, and indeed they should be savored and reverenced, but eventually we need to return to the ordinary and find God there, too.

As human beings, our task is to bring such experiences back into ordinary life, into our day to day relationships of love and care—into the works of justice and into personal relationships with our family and friends. In many ways, God transfigures us through the many small sacrifices we make, such as those we offer this Lent. Most of all, we choose to offer ourselves to God and what God asks, and ultimately it is God that makes the transfigurations take place.

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Friday readings on repentance and forgiveness

Today’s Gospel reading focuses on leaving one’s gift at the altar and reconciling. Jesus tells us that, as important as worship and relationship with God are, repairing and mending human relationships is what God asks us to do. (Of course, God does not ask us to re-enter abusive relationships, though we can still forgive the other in our hearts over time.) The image is a striking one: I imagine being at church in the middle of Mass and leaving partway through the service. For what reasons would we normally leave a church service? Fire? Disaster? Being taken ill? Or in order to repair a relationship?

Concretely, though, how do we live it? Below are a few essays from around the internet.

The Jesuit Post on Jesus and the radical nature of forgiveness:

Radicalizing Reconciliation

Sometimes psychological advice is helpful. Here, a couples’ therapist gives advice on how to “think like a therapist.” My favorite suggestion is, when caught in a bad relational pattern, do the opposite of your instinctive response:

Think like a therapist to heal relationships

What if you want to mend things, but the other person refuses to forgive? Here is blog post from a year or so ago that I wrote on the topic:

Five ideas for a refusal to reconcile

 

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Trust and Temptation

The readings for the First Sunday in Lent include an account of Jesus’ temptations and time in the desert. Each time Satan tempts Jesus, he uses Scripture. Jesus responds with his own scriptural passages. Among other things, it reminds us that Biblical passages need interpretation for how to apply them to our own lives. Scripture means something in the context of a larger interpretive tradition, and also in the context of our own relationships to God. Jesus knows that the devil’s use of the passages is “off” because of his closeness to the Father.

A theme that runs through all three of the temptations is power. The tempter asks Jesus to turn stone into bread to solve his own hunger, to thrown himself off the temple parapet to prove that he really is the Messiah, and to bow down and worship Satan in exchange for political power. In every case, Jesus denies that such shows of power are part of his mission. Instead, he emphasizes an everyday reliance on God. Listening to God’s word, not tempting God, and worshipping God alone–these simple kinds of acts of reliance on God all come down to a deepened trust that God is present in Jesus’ mission.

Jesus is about to embark on his ministry, and he refuses the temptation to look at his ministry in any way that detracts from its ordinary human aspects or that emphasize his own control as a divine being. As Christians, we believe that Jesus is divine and human. But he never lives out his ministry in a way that denies his humanity. He lives a fully human life that is humble: he gets hungry, is often rejected, and never possesses anything that looks like political power. Jesus stays grounded.

Interestingly enough, the three kinds of actions that Satan names come back in new and different form for Jesus: he doesn’t turn stones into bread but he does multiply loaves so that others who are hungry can eat. He doesn’t throw himself off the top of a tower to show he is the Messiah, but instead is hung high on a cross with the sign “King of the Jews” to mock him. He doesn’t bow down to worship Satan, but does kneel to pray to God in the garden at Gethsemane. In every case, Jesus relies on God while remaining fully human. He trusts in God and his ministry is not thrown too far off course in moments where it seems like there is not enough in the way of resources, or where he is rejected, or even where his ministry is interrupted by arrest, torture, and death. He knows God will transform the stones into bread, if he just continues to listen to what God asks him to do.

I think this, too, is our own challenge: to trust that God works through all the circumstances of our lives. Places of  vulnerability, resourcelessness, rejection, suffering, dying, or “desert places” can seem like spaces that need to be avoided. In an effort to escape these spaces, we can turn to forms of idolatry: trusting in our own power and not in God. But it is God’s power that multiplies bread and God’s power that heals, and not our own alone. Do we trust in that power so that we can participate in the work of the world that needs to be done? How much does trust rather than control guide our relationships and ministries?

We can each ask ourselves as part of our Lenten practice: what spaces in my life are the difficult “human” places from which I try to escape? Where in my life might I instead of relying on my own power to control, hand over the situation to God and trust that God can transform it into life giving bread? 

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Pope Francis’s message for Lent

 

Pope Francis’s message for Lent can be found here :

http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/lent/documents/papa-francesco_20161018_messaggio-quaresima2017.html

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Sin and spirit in Lent

ashes.jpg

Today is Ash Wednesday, when many Christians mark the season of Lent by attending Mass and receiving Ashes on our foreheads. The ashes remind us of our mortality and of our sin, of our human limit. As human beings, we are what Genesis names as a mixture of dust and divine breath. Today, we remember especially the “dust” side of things: we are mortal and without God, are really nothing at all.

In Lent, we are asked to undertakes spiritual practices of penitence including fasting, increased prayer, and charitable giving to the poor. We might especially at the start of the season begin by noting where we have fallen short, and where we have sinned–another side of our “nothingness” without God. As a colleague of mine, James Keenan SJ phrases it, sin is about a failure to love. We can each think of ways that we have failed to love individually. Such a failure to love can go beyond what wrongs we have done to also include, in what situations have I been empowered and capable of acting for the good but failed to do so. Is there a person in need of mercy to whom I have not shown it? Have I been self centered when I have been called to love the other and attend to his or her needs? Or have I failed to treasure myself as God’s beloved in some way and so to exhibit proper self love? Where has my fear stood in the way of my love, and especially of loving others in freedom?

While some of our failures are individual, there is also corporate sin to consider: how has my community, my city, or my country participated in evil, and have I cooperated with it, or done anything to resist it? Do I act in ways that express care for the poor, that are either explicitly or implicitly racist or biased, or that exploit others? Do I care for the planet? While none of us can “save the world” (only God can), we also have our part to play in community. Where have I loved, and where have I been capable of acting and yet failed to act?

The daily readings give us advice for how to undertake these kinds of Lenten examination. First, they emphasize the mercy of God. We are not to look at our shortcomings with the harshness of a taskmaster or with any kind of self hatred. Instead, we are to gently examine where we have fallen short in the context of God’s abiding mercy and unconditional love. God’s love is always bigger than any of our failings, and God always looks at us with that love, because God’s love is the very essence of who God is and must be. Consider how a (good) parent loves a child despite his or her mistakes as they learn how to grow in love and care of self and others: we look at a child’s shortcomings with an understanding that they are still learning and growing. So, too, I think does God look at us. Therefore, we can undertake Lent with the knowledge that this is an opportunity for gentle growth. We need not pick apart everything that might be done or every possible flaw, but just choose one or a few good things on which to work, and ask God to help us to grow.

Jesus also says that we need not be public or self-aggrandizing about our efforts. I know that I am apt to complain to someone (even if only my husband), how hungry I am when I fast, or what an effort I am making with some practice. But in such cases we can never really know if our motives are pure or not: am I doing this for God’s sake or for the sake of looking like a “good Christian” to somebody else? Therefore, Jesus tells us to act in a way that is hidden to others, except God— and perhaps a trusted spiritual friend or two who can offer support. Give alms secretly. Pray in private. Fast and try not to complain. Instead, be cheerful, because there is reason for good cheer: Lent will give forth to the blossoming of Easter and its many good gifts.

Lent is a season of penitence and preparation, but it is ultimately also a season of hope because we already know the truth of Easter, that God’s love and goodness have triumphed over sin and evil. Now we participate in the divine mystery of that transformation, trusting our way through, letting Divine Love carry us.

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