Saturday, January 22, 2011

'He is out of his mind.'

I couldn't sleep this morning, so I figured, rather than toss and turn, I'd go downstairs and pray. Don't for one minute think I'm good and holy, because I never get out of bed early to do this. So, anyway, I pick up the readings of the day. I recently read in the book "Prayerfulness" by Robert Wicks that Henri Nouwen told him the most important thing he could do for his prayer life was to read the daily Scriptures and sit in silence with God for 20 minutes every day. I don't know if I made it a full 20 minutes, but I gave it my best shot.

I read the first reading from the Letter to the Hebrews and have to admit that it didn't really do much for me. The Psalm was a familiar one, so I kind of breezed through that. (I know, I know. I'm not supposed to be "breezing" through Scripture.) And then I got to the Gospel, which just stopped me dead in my sleepy, prayerful tracks. It was one single verse from the Gospel of Mark 3: 20-21:

"Jesus came with his disciples into the house. Again the crowd gathered, making it impossible for them even to eat. When his relatives heard of this they set out to seize him, for they said, 'He is out of his mind.'"

Well, I had my money quote for reflection. The only thing my mind could focus on was his family's claim, "He is out of his mind." Why was this particular verse chosen -- on its own -- as the Gospel for today? Don't we need a little context? Why did they think he was out of his mind? Part of me found some comfort in the fact that the Jesus' family thought he was crazy -- I suddenly felt in very good company -- but I needed more. So I went to the Bible to read the surrounding verses.

Leading into that verse is the selection of the twelve apostles. Following that verse is the heart of the matter: They thought Jesus was possessed by Satan. Basically Jesus was acting so crazy, in their opinion, they figured they'd better save him from himself.

Well, to be honest, what Jesus says does sound kind of crazy, even in hindsight. He's curing the lame, casting out demons, telling people to love those who hurt them, to turn the other cheek, to give away everything they have and follow him. You have to admit, if someone walked into our midst today and asked all those things of us, we'd very likely have him seized and branded as crazy. So we can begin to imagine what must have been going through Jesus' family's collective mind at the time.

Do we really listen to what Jesus asks of us, or do we, like his family of old, read his words and think, "He is out of his mind." Because, really, most of what the Gospel challenges us to do stands in opposition to everything our culture considers sane. I'm not very good at truly loving the people I live with, no less my enemies. I can't imagine giving away all that I own. I find it impossible not to worry about tomorrow, even if God loves me more than the birds of the air. If someone asks for my shirt, I am not likely to give her my cloak as well. Do you know how cold it is in upstate New York?

Jesus was counter cultural then, and he is counter cultural now. And if we really follow the Gospel, we, too, may be branded as crazy. That Gospel reading -- so short yet so powerful -- reminds us that our God came into our midst and suffered ridicule and far worse for his message and his actions. Are we willing to follow, even if people are likely to say we are out of our minds?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Can men and women be friends?

I tackle the somewhat controversial subject of whether men and women can be "just friends" on this Christopher Closeup podcast with host Tony Rossi.

Some of you of a certain age may remember this pop culture debate from the "When Harry Met Sally" era, but what I'm talking about isn't just friendship but spiritual friendship. The short answer is, yes, men and women can have purely platonic but deeply intimate spiritual friendships when they are grounded in God. Curious? Check out the podcast link below.

Click HERE and listen.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Watching and waiting for God

Here's my latest Life Lines column from the new issue of Catholic New York. (Disclaimer: I have since rejoined the YMCA. Still no resolutions though...P.S. Noah took that cool sunrise photo above):

What new routines have you vowed to start and keep this year? A healthy eating plan? Exercise regimen? House re-organization effort? The new year offers the promise of a clean slate, a chance to begin again or try for the first time something that will improve our health, our home, our world.

I tend not to make typical resolutions, but I know plenty of people do. I remember when I was still a member of our local YMCA. When that first week of January hit, you couldn’t find a free treadmill or weight machine no matter what hour of the day you showed up. I asked a trainer, “How long will this go on?” He said, “Hang in there until the end of February and they’ll all be gone.”

We spend a lifetime—or at least a lot of years—acquiring the bad habits or out-of-shape bodies or lukewarm prayer lives that compel us to make resolutions, and yet we expect dramatic results in two months or less. We forget that undoing our habits is a one-day-at-time effort. One day at a time, one year at a time, one decade at a time.

Unfortunately, our society has brainwashed us into thinking we can find a quick-fix for everything. Pop a pill, drink a potion, buy a gadget, and you, too, will look like the plastic perfection staring out from a magazine cover. Of course, body and beauty resolutions are an easy target. They bear the brunt of the new year promises (both fulfilled and broken), because physical appearance is so important in our culture. But I know from experience that spiritual exercise routines and daily doses of prayer are no easier to stick to than that weekly abs class or low-fat diet. Spiritual renewal requires hard work. Continue reading HERE...

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Where the Amen meets the Om

Today, over at, I tackle the subject of yoga -- something I love -- and how it benefits my Catholic prayer life -- something some people find impossible or frightening. I'll start the post here and take you to the full post at that site. Please leave a comment (and, if you have the time, come back and post the same comment here for NSS readers).

When I took my first yoga class more than twenty years ago, I was in a bit of a crisis in terms of the Catholic faith of my birth. My mother had recently died and I had moved out of my family home and across the country. I was searching in so many ways and came upon yoga through a friend who knew a teacher who held classes in her home. There, on a mat in an empty living room, I learned how to stretch and settle my body in new ways, ways that allowed me to more easily enter a spiritual realm that has always beckoned to me.

So began my odyssey into an Eastern world that some would have us believe is not only incompatible with Roman Catholic faith but dangerous to it. Of all the posts I put on Facebook, anything having to do with yoga is sure to stir up ominous warnings. I have been told, on more than one occasion, that it is the work of the devil. And yes, I have read what the Vatican has warned about "New Age" religions (FYI: Yoga isn't even remotely new). Quite frankly, someone who is inclined to make an idol of yoga, turning it into an obstacle rather than a pathway to God, is probably just as likely to turn certain devotions within the church into idols or superstitions—from obsessing over the trappings of the faith, to burying a statue to sell a house, to leaving slips of papers in pews as a guarantee that a prayer will be answered. Idolatry comes in all forms; it doesn't take yoga to make that happen.

Permit me, then, to take you into my world of yoga, a world where Amen and Om happily coexist...Continue reading HERE.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The icing on the church

When I walked into Sunday Mass yesterday, I was taken aback by the beauty of the icicles hanging from the eaves all along the main church. I vowed to go back later and take a picture. I did not. Then, today, I went to 12:15 p.m. Mass, and, as I came up the sidewalk, realized I forgot all about the icicles. So after Mass I ran home, grabbed the camera and went back. I'm sure my pastor must have thought I was nuts if he spied me out the window. I couldn't resist. You can see the result in my new header photo for this blog and below.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Unexpected moments of grace

A few things have happened in these first few days of 2011 that make me believe that either a.) This is going to be a very good year, or b.) I am looking at the world through gentler, more welcoming eyes.

First was New Year's Day, the day Noah, our oldest, was born 14 years ago, which also happens to be the day that my paternal grandmother, affectionately known to all as E-ma because of a nickname I came up with when I was little, was born 98 years ago. But, for various reasons, I couldn't be with my grandmother on her birthday, so I felt a little sad over that.

We decided to go to 5 p.m. Mass on New Year's Day, but I was handling hospitality, so Olivia and I went over to church early, set up and figured we'd meet up with the rest of the gang inside. Minutes before Mass was about to start, we tiptoed up the center aisle to our usual spot in the one of the first few pews. I saw Noah at the end of the pew and Dennis and Chiara toward the middle, but who was that old lady sitting between them? Dennis shrugged his shoulders as I approached.

I sat down and smiled at her and she nodded, still not aware, I don't think, that she was sitting in the middle of a family. Then Olivia climbed over her and Chiara tried to get to me and she had her "aha" moment. She asked if she should move, and I said, "No, you can be part of our family tonight." Dennis whispered something to me and the lady looked at me and said, "My name is Mary too." Another big smile. Mass began and Mary was singing her heart out beside me. A few minutes into the opening prayers, I found myself alternately smiling and on the verge of tears. I had my birthday boy on one side and there, on my right, a surrogate grandma filling in for my own.

The woman's actual granddaughter showed up and sat in the row behind us and, at the Sign of Peace, I reached over to tell her how happy I was to have her grandmother sitting with me and why. (I can squeeze a lot into the Sign of Peace.) I think that made her happy, and maybe made up for the fact that she was supposed to attend Mass with her grandmother and ended up sitting behind her? Anyway, that was one of my first moments of grace this year.

The next day I went back to my first yoga class in a long time. I knew I was taking a chance because it was not a beginner class and I was too out of shape to be attempting anything more intense. But I settled onto my mat. Within minutes of beginning the class, I felt my shoulders relax and tension melt and peace flood into my heart, and I knew I was home (even in a sweaty YMCA studio). I wax and wane when it comes to my yoga practice, but standing there on that Sunday morning with 50 other people, I felt -- for the second time in 24 hours -- that deeply spiritual sense of community that comes when people join their hearts and minds, and, in this case, bodies in an effort to move forward physically, mentally, spiritually.

My next moment of grace came the next day when yoga class did not go as well. Obviously I was right when I guessed that attempting the athletic yoga class after months away was too much, and my body was rebelling. As I attempted a simple stretch, my elbow screamed in pain. Not being one to want to admit defeat, I struggled through the class, wondering what could be wrong. (The friend who came with me reminded me that it could just be because we're getting old. Thanks, Michelle. The truth hurts.)

I came home and iced it and rested it on a pillow, admitting that I would have to skip any exercise the next day. And I could feel the tension beginning to rise as I fought back disappointment over my scuttled plans. But slowly, maybe during the night and certainly by this afternoon, I felt a realization that it was okay. (Thanks, Scott, for reminding me that listening to my body is more important than striking a difficult pose.) My body is telling me to slow down, forcing me to focus not on being "the best" or even at the top of my class but on the journey at hand. Gains don't have to be made all at once. In fact, they rarely are. Bend with the obstacle, rather than break trying to beat it. So, here I am, in a little bit of pain -- especially when typing or writing -- but at peace with my middle-aged elbow and the fact that I just can't do all that I once did with as much ease. Then again, it's not all about the physical stuff, is it?

Finally -- And it's only "final" in this post. I'm hoping for many more grace-filled moments this year -- I began reading a book that seems as though it was meant to be placed in my hands at precisely this time. "Prayerfulness: Awakening to the Fullness of Life" by Robert Wicks (Ave Maria Press) came to my attention by accident, or so it seemed, as I flitted around Facebook one day recently. My publisher sent me a copy (Ave also published my Walking Together book), and I just began reading. It is a perfect fit, considering where I was spiritually at the end of Advent and where I am now. It's filled with great stories, sage advice and practical spiritual suggestions. I plan to post more on the book once I finish it. Still, as I read it and nod my head, I feel more and more grace and peace and stillness settling in. And that's a very good place to be at the start of a new year.

Monday, January 3, 2011

First review of 2011

This was a lovely way to start the new year. Thank you to Karen Edmisten for this review:

Walking Together : Discovering the Catholic Tradition of Spiritual Friendship, by Mary DeTurris Poust, was a Christmas present from Atticus. I read it yesterday and found it so touching and encouraging. If Mary DeTurris Poust did not have such a clear personal understanding of what a spiritual friendship is, she may not have been able to write such a lovely book about it. Interweaving accounts of saintly friendships with her own experiences (including a lovely tribute to her mother, who was also her dear friend), DeTurris Poust has written an uplifting book that will lead you -- if you don't already have such cherished soulmates -- to seek out what she describes. Though Mary and I have connected briefly online professionally, Walking Together made me want to invite her over for coffee and get to know her much, much better.

Visit Karen's wonderful blog and learn more about her books (one on Mary and one on the Rosary) by clicking HERE.