Where Jesus Came

Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen a lot of Christmas creches, and I suspect they’re not quite accurate.

Mary looks as if she’s just come from hair and makeup. Jesus is not crying, not nursing, but sleeping, the most unusual activity for a baby, as any new parents will tell you. And the innkeeper who wouldn’t give them a room apparently felt some last minute remorse and had the stables mucked out moments before because they’re gleaming.

The whole scene misses the point of incarnation; it confuses Christianity with perfectionism.

Jesus did not come into the world to put barns on the Good Housekeeping tour. He came to show that the stables shine just the way they are because there, as everywhere, the divine presence is found.

We have such a hard time with this. My family came for Christmas, and when they left, I felt unexpectedly sad. I enjoy the good fortune of having a wonderful family, but usually some sense of relief comes with having a quiet house again. Not this year.

I kept reminding myself to stick with the sadness, welcome it instead of fearing it and trying to push it away, and for one moment, I got it. I was making dinner, chopping up a pepper, and that pepper was suddenly breathtakingly beautiful, essence of pepper shining in the red and orange flesh.

Cutting vegetables in the comfort of one’s own kitchen is a far cry from going through the then dangerous ordeal of giving birth while lying on the ground, miles from home, without the community that would normally offer support. But that’s the thing about God’s love—it’s present during the smallest and largest difficulties, not taking them away as we often wish but rather inhabiting them and letting us know that no amount of muck can separate us from the sacred nature of ourselves, of others, of life.

The Joy of Presence

Instead of a license plate holder that says, “I’d rather be golfing” or “I’d rather be hiking.” I want one that says, “I’d rather be present.”

All the great spiritual traditions recommend dwelling in the here and now (or at least, as in the old Trident commercial, four out of five do). I tend to view being present as an accomplishment to attain, but maybe it’s simply a joyful place to be.

When we’re present, we can see that creation is one big current of love. Trees are manifesting love in tree form, grass in grass form.

Even we humans, confused as we are, walk around as electric charges of love. It seems improbable amidst all the horrors that we inflict on each other and on the Earth, but if it’s true of the hollyhock and the quail, it must be true of us. What else could we be when we are manifestations of God, of Infinite Love?

It’s easy to mythologize being present, seeing it as a state of perfection in which our mind is quiet and focused and our emotions are tranquil. While I’ll certainly take that when it comes, maybe presence is simpler than we think. Maybe all it requires is holding to a vision of life as it is, which is love.

Love does not make everything OK in the way we are accustomed to think of it. It doesn’t erase suffering or loss or insulate us from them, but as Jim Finley says, it offers “freedom from suffering in the midst of suffering.” It shows us the beauty of the bigger picture, the unchangeable nature of our and reality’s true identity regardless of the current circumstances.

Being present—being love to ourselves and others and recognizing love as the nature of all creation—is available to each of us every moment of every day, and it’s the most joyful choice we can make.

Loving God’s Justice

God’s justice is not our justice, Fr. Raneiro of New Camaldoli Hermitage emphatically pointed out in a sermon once. I had never considered that reality before, but looking around our world, it seems like the most obvious observation many of us never make.

In both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, God gets really clear about what justice is. Treat the widows and orphans like family. Feed the hungry. Tend to the sick. A just people cares for those who can’t care for themselves, for the poor, the marginalized.

These are not the principles on which our justice system is founded. Our justice system is largely concerned not with mercy but with maintaining privilege for the privileged. God’s justice system overflows with love and abundance. “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly,” Jesus says.

It can be hard to picture a universal order that’s so much more generous than we are, and yet it’s all around us—trillions of galaxies, millions of species of insects, around 200 seeds on the outside of a strawberry. The author of existence is Infinite Love. What other kind of universe could it be?

If we can learn to see the generosity with which God gazes at us, we can then see the rest of the world with wonder and love.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….All things came into being through Him.” That’s God’s generosity, giving away the divine being in and as absolutely everything that is. Complete inclusion—not a single particle escapes that outpouring.

To no corner of the universe does God say, sorry, I don’t think you’re worthy of me. Quite the opposite.

The invitations to Judgement Day say, come experience absolute grace and forgiveness. This is going to be one hopping and everlasting party, and everyone’s going.

The Marvel of Life’s Abundance

There is something tender and beautiful about pausing our sometimes relentless motion to give thanks. Of all the incalculable gifts in life, here is a selection that hints at the largesse of the whole.

I’m grateful…

For generosity of spirit—sharing what we have with strangers during times of gravest need or with coworkers who’ve run out of sugar, giving one another the benefit of the doubt while in traffic or strong disagreement.

For selflessness—driving fifty miles back to the gas station where the favorite teddy bear was left, letting someone in a rush go first at the grocery store, serving in the military.

For those people—or animals, plants, places—that shape our hearts simply by the quality of their presence in the world, especially for those who have passed on this year.

For conversations—the way they wind around and draw out our thoughts, make them elastic, give them new form and in the process give us new understanding.

For ideas—on one hand the most insubstantial of all things and on the other hand the foundation of all the realities we humans have created on this Earth.

For the Earth, this astonishing crucible of life.

For the “concrete immediacies” of our lives, as Jim Finley would call them—the couch that is comfy enough to fall asleep on, the cat who curls up in the crook of my legs and purrs as if he were in a purring contest while I’m nodding off.

For existence, for the completely gratuitous and freely given nature of that initial “Let it be.”

For love, the very warp and weft of our lives, the material of our being that opens us into relationship and makes us more whole the less we hold onto ourselves.

Happy Thanksgiving. May all your cups overflow.

Dwelling In-Between

Sometimes in our lives we are entering, and sometimes we’re exiting. We pass through periods of growth and periods of disintegration. And then there are the in-between times, which can be more unsettling than when everything falls apart.

At least when the familiar unravels, we can see what’s causing our sadness or distress. In between is a wintery place, a subterranean season. Any life or growth happens underground, out of sight, beyond our conscious reach.

In those parts of the world gathering their first layers of snow right now, people know that winter will not bend to their wills. It can be endured, dealt with—even enjoyed—but no one plants crops in winter. No amount of snow removal equipment makes it safe to drive quickly.

I noticed the arrival of an in-between time recently because of the absences that came with it—absence of ambition, absence of plans or planning, even a lack of concern about those missing attitudes. This isn’t the first in-between time in my life, but it’s the first time I’m not gnawing at it like an animal with its leg caught in a trap. This acceptance is all at once unnerving and unexpectedly peaceful.

Winter can be that way, too. Nothing quiets the soul like a gentle snowfall, but sliding through an intersection on black ice brings an immediate sense of panic.

Perhaps both feelings are responses to recognizing a lack of control. Recognizing and trusting gets me a dose of peace; recognizing and thinking I need to change something lands me squarely on the black ice.

Our culture does not teach us to “trust in the slow work of God,” as the theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin recommends. It teaches us to make things happen, to pursue what we want.

But winter is not a time for forcing change. The Earth is taking care of the bulbs and roots that will become green shoots and clenched buds impatient to open. And so in our in-between times, the Ground of our Being is tending the new life we as yet know nothing about. All we have to do is wait and enjoy the snowfall.

Radiating Love

“Beloved: See what love the Father has bestowed on us.” That’s the first line of the second reading for the Solemnity of All Saints in the Catholic church this year, from John’s first letter. It’s also what anyone might have said upon meeting Fr. Joseph Boyle, abbot of St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado.

To stand in Joseph’s presence was to receive an outpouring of strong and gentle love. You felt the love he radiated. It warmed you, and your heart opened in response the way a flower unfurls its petals to catch the sun’s rays and so becomes ready to welcome whatever visitors bring it life.

I grew up going on retreat at St. Benedict’s with my mom and a group of women around her age. Joseph entered my life in the way that people sometimes do when you’re a kid—effortlessly with no questions asked. As I got older, my appreciation and gratitude for the gift of this remarkable, kind, and generous human being grew.

I didn’t realize that I thought Joseph would live forever until he was gone. I haven’t seen him for many years, but without knowing it, I held this belief that whenever I returned to St. Benedict’s, his steady and loving presence would be there. I simply couldn’t imagine the world without him.

On my bookshelf waiting to be read is a book titled Humility Matters: Toward Purity of Heart. Joseph had a depth of humility, a pureness of heart that few people do. Perhaps I’m so surprised by the strength of pain and loss I’m experiencing because he manifested and offered God’s love so freely and purely that one received the gift without completely realizing its immensity.

Once after mass, he and I were talking when he saw someone across the room and said, oh I can’t let this person leave without receiving some of my love. It was a revelation to me that one could deeply respect the value of one’s own love and know the importance of sharing it without a trace of self-importance. Joseph always knew that the source of his love was God and didn’t feel it necessary to get in the way of God’s love flowing through him and out to the rest of us.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God,” reads one of the lines in the Beatitudes, the Gospel reading for All Saints. They will see God, as Joseph did, in their fellow human beings, in all creation, and in themselves. And now that he has passed on from this world to whatever communion awaits, surely he is seeing the fullness of God; surely he is continuing to become the beautiful love he shared with anyone fortunate enough to meet him.

Meeting Thursday

Thursday means multiple things in my life—playing soccer, blogging, receiving freshly baked bread from my mom (Yum!). This Thursday arrived particularly well-dressed, with the still-full moon hanging over the ocean in the morning while first light painted the sky in pastels.

In a conversation later in the day, one person noted gratefully that it was almost Friday, and within moments, another said that the week had gone by quickly. The rapid passing of our limited time on this Earth becomes more apparent as we age, yet we sometimes hurry it along all the more.

We complete one task while already focused on the next. We get through the day so we can go home. We wish for the week to end as we look forward to the weekend’s activities. We are surprised by how quickly time passes yet rarely inhabit the moment we’re in.

This week, Thursday knocked loudly enough to get through my preoccupations and say, hey, it’s me, Thursday, and I’m pretty cool. Let’s hang out. (Yes, Thursday is apparently a California surfer—who knew?)

Each moment contains multiple levels of living. What we are doing at any particular moment is certainly part of that, even if we’re doing “nothing.” But if we stay only on that level, we’ll never meet Thursday, and we’ll never meet ourselves.

These encounters require a different kind of attention, an awareness—or an openness to being aware—of eternity, the infinite depth of connection present between each tick of the clock. We are part of eternity now. We are already endlessly connected. We can dwell in eternity when we’re in the office, at the grocery store, or on the couch at home.

Eternity is waiting within and around us every day of the week. We need only pay attention to meet it.