Patience in the City

Since moving back to New York City a few weeks ago, I have come to once again appreciate the fast pace of city life. In a city where buildings arise from the concrete and asphalt, an aerial observer must look with amazement at the waves of people that bustle during the morning and evening rush hours. Living in a place that values a fast waiter, on-time train operator, and the “close door” button on the elevator, it can sometimes be difficult to step back and exercise patience. In a culture that values speed, how do we reconcile such with a God that calls upon us to be patient?

Is it in a city that we are forced to admit our own impatience or does a city merely accentuate the impatient nature of humanity today? Consider for a moment how we become upset when the computer doesn’t respond immediately or when a text message takes forever to send; in essence, some may argue that technology is one of the greatest challenges to patience. These are merely secular examples of the lack of patience exercised in today’s world. In response to this, Blessed John Paul II offers us one of the most beautiful characterizations of the need for patience:

For a stalk to grow or a flower to open there must be time that cannot be forced; nine months must go by for the birth of a human child; to write a book or compose music often years must be dedicated to patient research. To find the mystery there must be patience, interior purification, silence, waiting.

As a human being, I cannot command a flower to bloom nor can I call forth a child from his/her mother’s womb; however, I can wait and accept the realities of the now in anticipation of the future. By accepting today and looking forward to tomorrow, we can live our lives in a way that exercises a deeper appreciation for serenity. St. Teresa of Avila explains that patience allows the disciple to “leave himself in God’s hands so that His will might be fulfilled in him” (The Way of Perfection, Ch. 9). Perhaps this understanding of the value of patience is what Reinhold Niebuhr sought to capture in his Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

With the Serenity Prayer in mind, we should approach the rush hours of our lives. We have to accept that we cannot change the traffic jam, the elevator that was not held open for us, or the subway train that stops running. Yet although there are things we cannot change, we can control how we exercise patience in these situations and our daily lives as we seek to do God’s will. By waiting patiently for Christ, we place our lives in His hands and choose to live patiently in the present moment.

As St. Thomas Aquinas has commented, patience may not be the greatest of virtues, but it surely is a means by which to bring life into focus. As we wait on the train platform, sit in a traffic jam, or face another great trial, let us reflect on the words of Psalm 37, “Be still before the LORD; wait for God.”


The Samaritan Woman: Encountering the Different

Walking the bustling streets of New York City, you’re bound to pass someone you might characterize as “different,” but what really makes us perceive another as being different? Is it the color of their skin, the way they dress, or is it something else that causes us to pause? These categories of being different fail to witness the actual person and inhibit us from growing in love with them. When God created humanity, he created each of us in his image. In this way, he embraces our differences and accepts us as we are.

In the story of the Samaritan woman (John 4), we encounter a deeper understanding of God’s desire to be, and more precisely live, among his creation regardless of what others may say. You see in the case of the Samaritan woman, this scene is not only about Christ talking with a woman who is alone at the well, but is equally about a woman who has been married five times, is currently living with another man, and is from the region of Samaria, which would have in itself prevented many others from even approaching her. So why does Christ approach her? Christ realizes that just as he thirsted for the love of his creation (cf. Story of the Soul, Ch. XI), so did the woman thirst for the love of God. In this way, Christ sought to sit with a woman that many others would have cast off as being “different” and not “like them,” but instead Christ sat beside her, asked for a drink, and embarked on a conversation that changed the woman’s life.

Just as Christ fulfilled the woman’s eternal thirst, so the woman quenched Christ’s thirst for love. In her autobiography, St. Therese of Lisieux writes, “He was athirst, but when He said, ‘Give me to drink,’ He, the Creator of the Universe, asked for the love of His creature. He thirsted for love” (Story of the Soul, Ch. XI). Christ thirsted to be loved by the “different;” this is a profound testament to the love that Christ has not only for all of his creation, but also the love that he seeks from all without exception. Christ sat next to the woman of Samaria to let her know that she could choose to share in the waters of eternal life and commit her heart to the Creator.

Further, when Christ reveals that he knows about the woman’s five husbands and the current man that she lives with, the woman recognizes him as a prophet. After identifying Christ as a prophet she says, “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem” (John 4:20). Again, Christ responds to the woman and says the “true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23). In this way, Christ tears down a biblical Berlin Wall by declaring that worship will not be limited to a particular region or mountain, “but that those who adored the Father and were pleasing to Him were those that adored him in spirit and truth” (St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, Ch. XXXIX). In other words, differences will no longer divide worship, but rather the worship of God will transcend human boundaries and unite those standing on the mountain, praying in the valley, and those at the temple. In a single statement, Christ proclaimed a table of equality that welcomed all of God’s creation.

Although the story of the Samaritan woman helps us to better understand our relationship with God, I believe that it offers an equal opportunity for understanding how we, as humans, approach the “different.” In our world, there is a great famine that has struck our global community; it is a famine that tugs at our hunger for love. By merely turning on the television, we witness the cries for love pouring forth from Japan, but we also see this great need exhibited in Africa among the millions living with HIV/AIDS. Although some may see what distinguishes creation, we must look beyond what are perceived as differences and instead witness the image of Christ that lives in all. The opportunity to be a beacon of God’s love has never been greater. When we encounter poverty, when we come face-to-face with someone who has offended us, and when we sit by the bedside of the dying, we are being provided opportunities to bring love to others. Responding to these situations by feeding the hungry, forgiving our offender, and praying with the sick, we are witnessing the image of God that is found in all humanity. If we choose not to hear the cries of the thirsty, hungry, sick, and unsheltered, let us remember that we may be silencing the whispers of God: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

And so, are the “different” really that different? Or do we merely apply a human understanding of creation to that which only God can understand? In the case of the Samaritan woman, it’s quite clear that Christ saw beyond her ethnic differences, beneath her human errors, into the soul of a woman that thirsted for the love of Christ. In following Christ’s example, let us be aware that thirsty souls, wells of a human nature, and people representing the spectrum of God’s image are all around us; therefore, it is up to us to bring the message of living water to all, so as to quench the world’s thirst for love.

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Image: The Israel Museum
Author’s Note: Thank you to a friend for being the inspiration behind this post.

You, look just like… God

When I was a child, family, friends, and strangers often remarked how much I resembled my father. Although as a child, I would joke and say that “I got everything, but the big nose,” today I recognize that this is not just a compliment, but also defines my relationship to my father. The resemblance between my father and I is an outward sign by which others can identify us as father and son. In much the same way that we often resemble our parents, we also resemble God. In light of that, I sometimes wonder how someone would respond if I said, “You look just like God!” But can anyone really look like God? Yes.

Within in each of us is housed the image of God. In the Book of Genesis, God declares, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (Gn. 1:26). Therefore, we have all been created in the image and likeness of God, but does this mean that God has brown hair and eyes, dimples, and makes a slight twitch in the right eye when he contemplates a question? Or is God blonde with blue eyes? These are not silly questions, but rather we must admit that they limit God to the visible and deny the very creed that we proclaim on Sunday. To see the image of God that is in each of us, we must look beyond the color of our hair, eyes, and skin, and instead witness the God that is to be found in our souls.

St. Albert the Great helps us to understand the image of God when he writes, “For the true pattern of the soul is God, with whom it must be imprinted, like wax with a seal, and carry the mark of his impress” (On Cleaving to God, Ch. 3). If the image of God is an impress on our souls, how do we know it’s there if we cannot see it? In perhaps anticipating this question, St. Albert explains that the impress:

[C]an never be complete until the intellect is perfectly illuminated, according to its capacity, with the knowledge of God, who is perfect truth, until the will is perfectly focused on the love of the perfect good, and until the memory is fully absorbed in turning to and enjoying eternal happiness, and in gladly and centeredly resting in it. (On Cleaving to God, Ch. 3)

Although I find Albert’s description of the image of God as being similar to a stamp’s impression into wax useful, it does not tell the entire story of the image of God. Consider for a moment a light bulb. In much the same way that wax is impressed, components are brought together and manufactured to create these small bulbs that bring light to our world. It is not the bulb itself that brings light, but rather intricate parts that define the interior of the bulb. To the human eye, many of these small parts that define a bulb are hardly visible. Yet without the filament, the bulb would be little more than a piece of glass. Even with a filament, if a human being fails to flick a switch and turn the light on, the bulb still remains a lightless piece of glass with a filament inside. In essence, although the light bulb has all of the parts required to work, it is dependent on the human capacity to understand the relationship between the switch and the bulb to bring light to a dark room. In much the same way, we as humans we’re created in the image of God, an image that in the words of St. Albert is impressed upon our souls; however, we must become aware of this image to fully understand what it means for our lives. In essence, we must learn to flick the switch.

In the same way that a bulb requires human knowledge, so do we require knowledge of God to understand the absolute beauty of being created in his image. We come to know God by encountering him in the world around us. For just as God’s image has been impressed on our souls, the impression is also found on the souls of those we meet throughout the day. Through these experiences and interactions with others, we come to know a God who is our friend and father.

It is in these moments of witnessing our living God that we can acknowledge the truth behind the words of Genesis and recognize that “We hold the resemblance to God” (Origen, Against Celsus, Bk. VII, Ch. LXVI). As we become aware of this resemblance, we should commit ourselves to live as an “image of God’s mercy” (St. Therese of Lisieux) and an image of God’s love. A commitment of this type is not easy, especially in today’s world; however, as we look around us and see the image of God in our brothers and sisters, we soon realize that we are not in this alone, but rather we are one of many. As we see others live as an image of God let us not be afraid to say, “You look like your father, God.”

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Author’s Note: Thank you to the friends that provided feedback for this post, especially the person that identified the dangling participle in the first draft.

Words, words, I’m so sick of words: The limits of words in defining God

“Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!” – Eliza Doolittle (My Fair Lady)

Decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court demonstrate the power of words. It is in an opinion from the nation’s highest court that we come to witness the parsing of what speech is protected by the Constitution or whether a law violates one’s right to “bear arms.” The First Amendment is a mere 45 words that has resulted in judicial opinions with thousands of words. As a result, we can see how important words are in bringing clarity to a situation. With words being given such power, it is no surprise that as human beings we have used them to define God. If we look out a window and watch a rambling brook, do we as humans have the capacity to define it as beautiful or ugly? Or are we attempting to apply words created by the human mind to define a creation that has been painted by our Creator?  Proverbs 17:27 cautions us, “A man of knowledge uses words with restraint.” This is of course a caution for “restraint” that is subjective, for just as the Court clarifies rights in thousands of words as people we have come to understand this restraint from millions of different perspectives. Just as words have the power to clarify and unite, so too do they have the power to divide and invoke ambiguity.

I do not seek to contend that God condemns the application of words to defining God, but rather I wonder what loss of understanding occurs because of the limits of human language. For instance, when we refer to God as “Him,” do we then perceive an image of God through our own understanding of maleness? Or do we recognize that God is neither male nor female, but rather referred to as “Him” with a divine understanding of “Fatherhood?” In this example we can see how language acts to potentially exclude rather than include members of the Christian family. By merely applying an earthly understanding of “Him” and “Fatherhood,” we risk viewing God as a mere “man” and fail to fully understand His divinity. The inability of words to fully explain God is captured beautifully in the tale of Augustine and the boy he encounters along the beach attempting to empty the sea into a small hole in the sand. When Augustine questions the small boy and criticizes his endeavor for being impossible, the boy responds by pointing out that Augustine is equally incapable of fully defining the Triune God with merely words.

Aside from gender, the limit of language is also made evident in considering the meaning of love. Turn on a television and you’ll see love presented as a “one night stand,” the love a fan has for his/her favorite musician, or the “love” between members of the Jersey Shore household. Is this understanding of love the same that we then turn and apply to 1 John 4:8-10, when we read, “Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him.” The limits of words are especially evident in the English language. Consider the fact that we apply the same word “love” to our favorite actors and actresses, our spouse, and God. Is it possible to understand what differentiates the meaning of love in each of these cases or do we merely apply this word without fully discerning its usage?

In his dialogue with Adeodatus about the limits of words, Augustine poses the question, “Haven’t you ever seen that men ‘converse’ with deaf people by gesturing?” To which he answers, “When this happens, they show us without words not only visible things, but also sounds and flavors and other things of this sort. Even actors in the theaters unfold and set forth entire stories without words – for the most part, by pantomime” (The Teacher, Ln. 29-36). It is with this example that Augustine helps us to understand not only the limits of words, but also the unnecessary nature of them. Augustine continues his dialogue with Adeodatus by questioning, “What if I should ask you what walking is, and you were then to get up and do it? Wouldn’t you be using the thing itself to teach me, rather than using words or any other signs?” (Ln. 53-55). Relating Augustine’s question about walking to this essay’s discussion of using words to define God, we see by Augustine’s question how the only way in which we convey the meaning of words is by living the words we speak.

Bringing life to words is fully evident in the New Testament. In the Gospel According to John we read, “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (John 1: 14). In this way, God breathed life into his word by sending his Son to live among us and teach us the meaning of the word. Today, as we apply words to our own understanding of God, let us not forget that it is in living these words that we show others their meaning.

In the end, we discover that words have been constructed by humans and therefore are inadequate for defining God. Amidst their limitations, words remain a powerful force by which to share the message of Christ with the world. This message will be heard by the power of words, but it will only be witnessed by the power of example. By following Christ and living our lives in a way that brings the word to life we continue to bear witness to a God who is omnipresent and not limited by the words of humankind.

Homemade ashes on Ash Wednesday

Almost ten years ago, at the age of eleven, I started teaching religious education at my hometown’s Catholic Church. One night, pulling into the parking lot with my father, who assisted with teaching, I turned to him and screamed, “Dad, it’s Ash Wednesday and we forgot to get ashes!” He turned, looked at me, and clearly sensed my concern. If you know my father, you know that he’s quick to ascertain a suitable solution. In this case, he opened the middle console, whipped out a pack of matches, and made his own ashes, which he then marked on my forehead. At the time, I thought this was a rather silly solution and perhaps even sacrilegious, but looking back I realize that it was that night in the Church parking lot that I learned the true meaning of Ash Wednesday. I came to understand that the day on which millions of Christians around the world go to churches to receive ashes is not about being a part of some elite club, but rather about humility and growing with Christ.

In his 1996 homily for Ash Wednesday, Blessed John Paul II quoted from Psalm 51, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love… of my sin cleanse me… I acknowledge my offense… Against you only have I sinned… Create in me a clean heart, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me… Cast me not out from your presence, and take not your holy spirit from me” (cf. Ps 51[50]:3-13). It is at this moment in the Liturgical Year that we are called to reflect on our sins while committing ourselves to spiritual renewal. In calling upon us to consider the need for renewal in our own lives, Pope Leo the Great posed the following questions, “Which of the faithful does not know what virtues he ought to cultivate, and what vices to fight against? Who is so partial or so unskilled a judge of his own conscience as not to know what ought to be removed, and what ought to be developed?” In essence, Leo is reminding us that we are already aware of our wrongdoings and how as human beings we are constantly growing in our relationship with Christ. In order to clearly bear witness to our sins, we must exercise humility; a humility that allows us to judge ourselves without partiality. In these moments, we admit our own imperfections while equally committing ourselves towards a more perfect state.

As we enter the season of Lent we are called to become dust, for “Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return” (“Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris,” cf. Genesis 3.19). It is the earth itself that holds the history of humanity. The soil we walk is subdued with the blood of war and tears of joy; however, it is in recognizing the stories contained in our own dust that allow us to see the need for spiritual renewal during this time that calls each of us to witness truth. Just as Christ stood amidst the dust of the desert for forty days, may we use the next forty days to stand in our own deserts to reflect on our lives and relationship with Christ. At the same time let us remember that we are not alone on this journey, that our desert is but one of many, and that together we can find the living water amidst what appears to be a dry desert. God will guide our hearts to a wellspring of renewal that will bring forth the promise of peace and joy found in the love of God.

In our moment of poverty in the desert, may we be drawn nearer to the poor and moved to action on their behalf. I was reminded of this call to service each day while living in New York City and attending daily mass at St. Paul the Apostle, just outside of Columbus Circle. Fr. Jack would always include “those who have no one to pray for them” among the daily prayer intentions. I’m not sure I understood the meaning of such a statement at the time, but as we enter this Lenten season, its meaning is all too clear. During this period of renewal, may we also renew our commitment to bring God’s message to those who long for love.

In writing this reflection, it amazes me what insight can be gained from sitting in a Church parking lot. Looking back on that night, I realize that my father helped me to understand that this day is not just about ashes, it’s also about having the courage and humility to stand in the desert, admit our sins, commit our lives to bringing love to those in need, and cultivating a deeper relationship with our Creator.

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