Weekly Musings

A few weeks ago I read, “Go Set a Watchman,” by Harper Lee for my book group. While much ink has been spilled in debating how it compares with, “To Kill a Mocking Bird,” clearly that is not my area of expertize, so I will not venture into that discussion. I did enjoy the book, and it was a source of a good discussion for my book group. Very specifically, though, I was particularly struck by one sentence near the end of the book. Jean Louise was involved in a long conversation with her uncle Jack around the issues of race and prejudice. At one point her uncle, Jack, said to Jean Louise: “Prejudice a dirty word, and faith a clean one, have one thing in common: they both begin where reason ends.” 

When I read these words I was struck by their simplicity, but also their truth. Both prejudice and faith are not grounded in reason or logic. They are an act of the will that has no logical explanation. Now, I suspect some people would argue that with both prejudice and faith there is some rational explanation for them, or that they have their roots in experience and/or knowledge. I believe, though, that when push comes to shove, the proof for this position is elusive and vague. 

In speaking of faith, the author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote: “Faith is confidence reassurance concerning what we hope for, and conviction about things we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). Notice that there is no reference to reason or logic, no attempt to explain faith or give a rational explanation for it. Faith is not a “provable” proposition; it simply is. I think something similar is true in regard to prejudice. 

While there are times when I wish there would be some “proof” for my faith, I have come to believe that if this were to occur, I would be very disappointed. Because faith has to do with things beyond our human awareness and comprehension, by its very nature it can’t be proven or gotten to by reason or logic. Faith like prejudice begins where reason ends. 

On one level it does bother me a little that faith and reason have in common the fact that they begin where reason ends. On a deeper level, though, I am grateful that faith is not an easy or provable proposition. I want and need something to believe in that is greater than myself and beyond my comprehension. Additionally, though, I am also embarrassed that at times prejudice has crept into my life disguised as insight or knowledge. With both faith and prejudice, the challenge is not to try to use reason as their basis, but to remember that they both begin where reason ends. 

What does it take to change a life? One formula includes willing students, committed volunteer mentors and supportive administrators. Two years ago the Basilica entered into a new partnership called, “Hennepin Connections,” with our neighbor, Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC). The premise was simple—pair one volunteer mentor with one MCTC student who had experienced homelessness or poverty.

Mentors were asked to provide support and encouragement to students to help them stay in school and graduate. In its initial year, nine volunteers participated. Students who completed the year received a $1,500 scholarship. The start-up was intentionally small in order to learn if this idea would work and what was needed by the volunteers and students for these relationships to be successful. 

In year two, the goal was to grow to 15 students. This May, that goal was exceeded when 17 students and mentors completed Hennepin Connections—now “the buzz” at the college. Andrea Nelson is the Advancement Officer for the MCTC Foundation and recently attended the closing gathering for mentors and mentees. Describing a powerful goodness in the room, Andrea was struck by the volunteer mentors’ comments. “They expressed gratefulness for the friendships and relationships they had forged, and they talked about building a relationship with someone that they didn’t even know a year ago. How often do people of different experiences and different ethnic backgrounds come together and share deep and meaningful conversations?” The surprise for Andrea was that the mentors learned as much as their mentees.

The success of Hennepin Connections means more volunteer mentors are needed. Mentors commit for a school year from September to May, and training and support are provided. Current mentors said it’s important to view the role as a guide, someone who assists as an advisor, and good listening skills are a must.

A volunteer mentor since the start, parishioner Steve Kattke is a strong advocate who actively encourages others to get involved. He shared that it may be hard to understand the barriers students are working to overcome and stressed that a mentor makes a difference. Students struggle with issues like transportation, a place to sleep, or finances while working to achieve their educational goals.

Parishioner Marsha Carlson was a new mentor this year. Last fall, after continuing to hear that students still needed mentors, Marsha joined after the program had begun and jumped right in. Marsha said, “It was easy. At first, we met at MCTC which is across the street the Basilica, and that is how we got to know each other. After that, we would meet or talk on the phone about once a week to check in on how things were going.”
Marsha knew when her mentee had tests and knew when she was struggling. As a mentor, Marsha offered resources and emotional support, and she felt a real bond with her mentee. Over Christmas, Marsha was out of town but kept in touch with her mentee. Her mentee was surprised that Marsha kept calling even while traveling. After the program ended, Marsha learned what meant the most to her mentee was knowing someone besides her family and friends cared about how she was doing.

Serving as a mentor opened Marsha’s eyes to the realities of homelessness. She watched students struggling to achieve their educational goals, but they also worried about where they would sleep that night. Marsha described being a mentor as an amazing experience and definitely worth her time. She plans to serve as a mentor again next year.

Are you called to consider serving as a mentor with Hennepin Connections? This one-on-one ministry is life changing for everyone involved. To learn more, contact Janice Andersen, Director of Christian Life.

A few weeks ago, while I was on my way to visit someone in the hospital, a car pulled in front of me that had a bumper sticker that read: “Got Jesus.” My immediate reaction was a strong sense of discomfort. Not being particularly pleased with that reaction, I decided the bumper sticker merited a little prayer and reflection on my part.

After spending some time reflecting on the bumper sticker, it dawned on me that the source of my discomfort was the fact that from my perspective it was asking the question the wrong way. The question should not be whether we have “got Jesus,” but rather has Jesus got us. From my perspective this is an important distinction.

Implied in the question of whether we have “got Jesus” is the idea that somehow Jesus is our personal possession. This in turn can lead us to make Jesus into what we want Jesus to be rather than allowing ourselves to be formed into what Jesus would have us be. In my own life, I have discovered time and again how easy it is for me to confuse God’s will for me with my will. If I let myself believe that I had “got Jesus,” I worry that my will and God’s will for me would be nearly indistinguishable. I suspect this is true for all of us.

On the other hand, when Jesus has “got” us, this causes us to see things from a different perspective, to acquire a new way of thinking. I believe this was what St. Paul was getting at when he wrote his letter to the Ephesians. In that letter, Paul was urging the new Christians at Ephesus to live no longer as the pagans did. “That is not how you learned Christ! I am supposing, of course, that he has been preached and taught to you in accord with the truth that is in Jesus; namely that you must lay aside your former way of life and the old self which deteriorates through illusion and desire, and acquire a fresh, spiritual way of thinking. You must put on that new person created in God’s image, whose justice and holiness are born of truth” (Ephesians 4: 20-24).

We don’t “get Jesus.” Rather our challenge is to allow Jesus to “get” us. We will know this has happened when we find ourselves acquiring the fresh spiritual way of thinking that St. Paul wrote about.

 

Who doesn’t love Pope Francis? she asked. He has such an intimate relationship with God. I so envy him. Since I was young, I have always desired the type of relationship with God that is so close and loving on my part that I would never let go of it, and I would protect it all of my life.

She is a good friend of mine and I have always envied the relationship she has with God.  It’s funny how that works. She doesn’t even realize that she has it already.

This propelled me to look more closely into how Pope Francis speaks about God, and this quote struck me: This may sound like heresy, but it is the greatest truth! It is more difficult to let God love us than to love Him. The best way to love Him in return is to open our hearts and let Him love us. Let Him draw close to us and feel Him close to us. This is really very difficult letting ourselves be loved by Him. This is perhaps what we need to ask today ‘Lord, I want to love You, but teach me the difficult science, the difficult habit of letting myself be loved by You, to feel You close and feel Your tenderness! May the Lord give us this grace’.

Well, just how did Pope Francis develop his relationship with God or anyone we consider to be holy and close to God? First of all, it probably took a lot of practice in prayer. We often forget that our prayer life is equivalent to quality time spent with family members and friends. If we didn’t spend time with them, we certainly wouldn’t have a very good relationship with them. So prayer has to be the number one priority if we want God to be so much a part of us and everything that we do.

We need to realize that there are many different types of prayer and prayer forms. Explore them and find one that is a fit for you. Talk with people you know who have solid prayer lives, get their suggestions and seek their encouragement. Don’t lose hope. Prayer grows just as our relationships grow. The more time you spend in it, the stronger your relationship will be.

Find a time of day when you will feel least distracted. For some it may be the morning, for others it will be the evening just before they go to bed. Establish the best time for you and stick to it.

It is important to remember that prayer should be 10% talking and 90% listening. Listen with your heart. Quiet yourself and put all distractions aside for the few minutes you plan to be in prayer. Distractions are part of who we are. They will always be there. One wise person told me not to fight the distractions in prayer. Make friends with them and bring those distractions to your prayer.

One of the things I find beautiful about the above quote by Pope Francis is the truth in it. God wants to love us more than we will ever know. Giving God time to do that will certainly change us. Sometimes there are days when all I can do is say: Here I am, Lord. I open my heart to you. Just pour your love into my heart. Then I just sit quietly for a few minutes as I picture God pouring love into my heart. It’s a simple way to pray, but I have found it to be quite powerful. 

Remember, there is no right or wrong way to pray. It is your relationship with God that you are growing. The words aren’t nearly as important as an open heart and mind. If you have never had the discipline of a strong prayer life, make a promise to yourself to begin soon. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain a beautiful relationship with your God.

Within the past few months I have hosted a couple of priests for dinner, and then they stayed overnight in my guest room. They were both very pleasant and gracious guests, and easy to have around. We had great conversations, and both evenings were very enjoyable. The only complaint I have is that they didn’t do things the way I thought they should be done. One of them only filled up the ice trays half full, and when he put new linens on his bed in the morning, he didn’t make hospital corners. The other loaded the dishwasher all wrong and put the butter dish in the refrigerator instead of leaving it out on the counter. Now I didn’t want to hurt their feelings, so I didn’t tell them about their errors. And the only way they will find out about them is if someone reading this column snitches on me. 
 
Now I know what you’re probably thinking: That man has lived by himself way too long. And, of course, you’re right. I suspect if I were to live with a roommate or God forbid some kind of community, I would be given a severe talking to on a regular basis. No doubt I would also be given time outs on a fairly frequent basis. When we live by ourselves, it is easy to become rough around the edges and perhaps even a little brittle. There is something about being around other people, though, and having to rub shoulders with them on a regular basis that smooths away some of our rough edges and makes us easier to be with. Certainly this is true in the work environment, and while I can’t say for sure, I suspect it is true when you live with others.
 
I think the above is also true in regard to the Christian community. I have long maintained that among the many benefits of the Christian community there are two that are vitally important. Specifically, the Christian community supports us when we are struggling and feeling burdened, and it corrects us when we start to wander off and go our separate ways. Both of these functions are important and, I believe, both are essential in a Christian community.
 
The thing is, though, that in order to enjoy these benefits you have to be part of a community. You have to invest something of yourself in the community. You have to believe that you along with everyone else has a place in the community. For some people this comes naturally. Others seem to struggle with it, and some never seem to be able to make the connection. While I don’t know exactly why this is, I do know that a big part of helping people feel a part of a community is when those who are already established and at home in that community make the effort to invite and welcome new members. Another important piece is just accepting people as they are and where they are, and not expecting them to conform to our expectations.
 
Both of the above are important. Helping people feel a part of our community and knowing they have a home is an ongoing goal. The same is true of working harder at accepting people as they are and where they are. This is certainly true in our parish community. For me personally, though, I think it is also true for overnight guests. To this end, I have deleted the list of rules and regulations for guests I was composing for the back of my guest room door, and I will instead welcome any visitors I might have graciously and overlook their failings silently.

Nestled in the north-west corner between The Basilica, the sacristy, and the rectory sits The Basilica’s Mary Garden, a hidden treasure waiting to be discovered or discovered anew. Last Saturday, Karen Harrison and Wanda Sweeney were busy at work in the garden tidying it up in anticipation of the beginning of the month of May, dedicated to the Blessed Mother. They tend the garden lovingly and faithfully all year long. 

The Basilica of Saint Mary is one of only a handful of churches in the United States that has a true Mary Garden. Often people mistakenly think that any garden with a statue of Mary in it is a Mary Garden. Rather, they are much more complex than that and mostly void of a statue.

Mary Gardens originated in Medieval France and its surrounding countries. The basic concept is an enclosed garden known as a hortus conclusus referencing the virginity of Mary. Each flower in the garden represents one of Mary’s virtues. The Lily, e.g. represents Mary’s purity; the Bleeding Heart represents Mary’s sorrow; Solomon’s Seal represents Mary’s wisdom; Gilly Flower represents Mary’s fidelity; and Violets represent Mary’s modesty, to name but a few. The Garden as a whole thus symbolizes Mary with all her strengths and virtues. 

Mary Gardens traditionally do not have a statue of Mary in them as the garden itself is intended to be a representation of Mary. And different from praying before a statue of Mary, believers enter the garden and, aided by the colors and fragrance of the flowers, they spiritually immerse themselves in Mary’s virtues while praying that her virtues may become theirs.  

The idea for a Mary Garden at The Basilica of Saint Mary was proposed by the Friends of the Basilica of Saint Mary, now known as The Basilica Landmark. After years of study and planning, The Basilica’s Mary Garden became reality in 1997. Staying as true as possible to the medieval concept, the original design was done by Stacy Moriarty of Moriarty/Cordon. Given the difference in climate and the specifics of the shady location of our garden, the traditional selection of plants did not thrive. Thus, after careful consideration and with due respect to the original design, the Garden was enhanced in 2008 with the help of Brad Agee of the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Minnesota to include more hardy plants. Standing in the tradition of those who assigned Mary’s virtues to the original selection of plants, Mary Ritten recognized and described Marian virtues in the newly selected plants, more suited for our Minnesota winters. 

The Basilica’s Mary Garden thus is a reinterpretation of the traditional French Mary Garden adapted to our Minnesota weather, no less inspired and no less inspirational. To give but a few examples, sweet autumn clematis, a vigorous vine speaks to Mary’s tenacity and courage while facing her many trials. The yellow flowers in Mary’s Mantle remind us of the radiance of Mary as a source of consolation. The roses are a clear reference to Mary’s title in the Litany of Loretto as Rosa Mystica or Mystical Rose. 

Though originally intended to have no representation of Mary in the Garden, Beckoning, a bronze sculpture by Gloria Tew was installed in the garden in the year 2000. This was in response to multiple requests for a statue of Mary. However, in order to be true to the original concept of a Mary Garden, the sculpture is semi-abstract and intentionally ambiguous. 

Her placement in the garden and the way she holds her hands can indeed be interpreted as Mary inviting us in. It may also be understood as a more abstract representation of hospitality and invitation. Regardless of who you might think she is, her goal and ours is that you enter the Mary Garden especially during this month of May dedicated to Mary and spend some time in it. Inspired by its beauty, we invite you to meditate on the virtues of Mary represented by the flowers in the garden and to pray that her virtues may become yours.

Watching the Clock

In the years since I have been ordained I’ve always made it a practice wherever I’ve lived to designate a special area for prayer. Usually this area is in a corner of my bedroom. I have my “prayer chair” there as well as a small table on which I keep my Breviary, various scripture commentaries, a candle, and sundry other items. One of the items that I added about ten years ago was a small digital clock someone had given me. I use this clock when I’m at prayer—especially in the morning—to make sure I don’t lose track of time. A few weeks ago I noticed that the display on the clock was getting dimmer and dimmer, so I knew it was time to replace the batteries. 

Now resetting this clock has become increasingly problematic the past few years. When I first got it, I was able to reset the time by pressing my finger on the display. Unfortunately over the years, the screen has become less and less responsive to my touch. And after replacing the batteries, I couldn’t reset the time no matter how many times I touched, pressed, pushed, or manipulated my finger on the screen. It occurred to me that it might be time to replace the clock, but since it had served me well for ten years, I just let it sit for a few days to see if it would eventually respond to my touch.  


Now I have to say that while initially it wasn’t a problem that I couldn’t reset the clock, after a few days it did begin to bother me. I liked being able to glance up when I was reflecting on the scriptures and know how long I had been at it. I took a certain pride in the fact that at times I thought I had been praying for 15 minutes only to glance at the clock and realize it had actually been 25 minutes. At other times, of course, I would glance at the clock only to realize that what I thought had been 15 minutes was only 5 minutes.


After about a week of praying without knowing the “right” time, I had a sudden insight that perhaps I had turned what was initially a convenience, into a “measure.” Further, it occurred to me that God might be trying to tell me that the time I gave to God in prayer shouldn’t be measured or timed. It should be God’s time. And it should take as long as it takes. Timing my prayer not only wasn’t being very respectful of God, but more importantly it was turning what should have been a relationship into a duty. 


A few days after the above revelation, I was telling another priest about it. He suggested that perhaps I needed to re-think how I approached my prayer time. Then in passing he said: “And you know you might want to try using a stylus to reset your clock.” He then gave me an extra stylus that he had. And when I got home, voilà—problem solved. I was able to reset the clock. The other problem remained, though, of checking the time during my prayer. I ultimately decided that the clock could stay, but that I would only check it once during my prayer time. So far this seems to be working, and it has made me more conscious of the fact that prayer is time with God, and that since God is more concerned that I pray, than with how much time I spend in prayer, perhaps this should be my goal too.

The Cross adorned with Yellow Roses

Learning to Let Go

The Easter season has always been a highlight for me in my faith but this year is a bit different. It seems a little weird to be talking about Lent but that is where it all began for me.  Usually when Lent rolls around, I often think of things I could “give up” but mostly, I think about things I can do extra, like more time in prayer. But the past few years I have begun Lent asking God to show me what God wanted of me and what God wanted me to learn and how to grow spiritually. Well, I might have to stop this practice as each of the last few years, God has very actively led me where God wanted me to be and had me learn exactly what I needed to learn! This has not been easy because, you see, I have this will to do things my way and not have anything or anyone interfere with my “plan for living.” And each Lent I have asked myself, “Is this the way for me to go through Lent?” It would be so much easier for me to just give up soda or fast longer and give more alms. Don’t get me wrong…I am not saying these things aren’t good Lenten practices. All I am saying is that for me this is what God has led me to do. 

As I traveled through my own Lenten journey, I was also joined with our RCIA catechumens and candidates. This is always something special for me as they draw their strength from the various scriptures and share their insights into the stories of Jesus and his encounters with many different people in the gospels. They feel supported and loved by our community through your prayers and notes to them, which leaves me feeling inspired on my Lenten journey, too.

Also, and most importantly, God has very clearly been showing me where in my life I needed to clean out the closets of my soul. I knew there were some things that needed rearranging, but God wanted me to clean them out to make more room for God’s love in my life. What a gift this awareness has been. It is not easy letting go of some of these things, like my will or my selfishness or my pride. And they will undoubtedly still pop back up in my life, and sometimes, everyday. But at least I am more aware of when they do and I pray that God will continue to increase my awareness.

This “letting go” has allowed me to be more aware of the needs of others, especially, others’ need for mercy. After all, this year is the Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis.  And today we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday. There are some days that have been better than others. It seems that when I am less open to this process, the more I am faced with instances where my heart needs to grow bigger and my pride needs to lessen quite a bit. And then there are those days in which my faith falls short and I need a bigger God because the things I have done or not done have limited God’s love and mercy in my life. 

At the end of this long journey of Lent comes the moment of resurrection. We are graced because we know the ending to Lent. We know that death is not final. We know the power and strength of the resurrection. And we can rest and delight in the joy of Jesus truly risen within our hearts.

During the season of Lent we priests often help hear confessions at penance services in our respective parishes. Since I usually help at several different services, I sometimes find it expedient simply to leave my alb and stole in my car, rather than carrying them back and forth to the sacristy. While this is convenient, there is a drawback to it. Specifically, I discovered that by taking my alb to all those penance services and by keeping it in my car, and by sometimes dropping it in the parking lot on my way into a church, and by occasionally placing my shoulder bag and sundry other items on top of it, my alb easily becomes soiled and stained. As a result, one of my Lenten rituals is that sometime toward the end of Lent, I always wash my alb. I have discovered with a little bleach, my alb is restored to it pristine white color.   

Now I mention the above not only because a nice clean alb is not only a good way to end Lent, but it is also a good metaphor for me for Easter. You see, as Christians, we look to the season of Lent as a time for us to acknowledge our sins and failures and to recommit ourselves to the life of Christ that we took on through our baptism. My soiled alb always serves as a good reminder to me of my failures to live and act as a follower of Jesus. It speaks to me in a very real way of my need for Lent. Each year when I pull my nice clean alb from the washer, I am reminded of the new life Christ won for us through his death and resurrection, that is freely given to us, and that we celebrate on this great feast of Easter.  

At times it is easy for us to forget how important—how necessary—Easter is. Given this, we need to be reminded that not only does Easter celebrate Christ’s resurrection, but also it celebrates the fact that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the promise and offer of eternal life has been given to all believers.  

Truly the gift of eternal life is a wondrous and glorious gift. It is worthy of our most heartfelt thanks, and our most glorious celebration. As we gather today on the great feast of Easter my prayer is that our celebration might be an opportunity for us to remember how important this feast is, that it might be a time for us to celebrate anew our faith in Jesus Christ, and that it might be the occasion for us to renew our hope in the promise of eternal life, which has been offered to all believers.  

Nothing jumpstarts my prayer life more than when I encounter an unexpected difficulty. Facing a challenging situation, and realizing I don’t have a quick or easy answer, sends me to my knees faster than a blow to the solar plexus. Now certainly this doesn’t happen often. I don’t like surprises and work hard to avoid them. (I believe “surprise parties” are a preview of what hell is all about.) Occasionally, though—and usually through no fault of my own—I face an unexpected dilemma that throws me for a loop. At these times, my prayer life automatically kicks into high gear, as I storm heaven seeking guidance and support. 

Now the above is not something I am particularly proud of. In fact, I am a little embarrassed to admit it. I probably wouldn’t bring it up at all except that I think it is a trait that is common to most people. In this regard, I suspect most of us pray on a regular basis. (Our prayers may be short or long; they may come from a prayer book, or perhaps they are memorized prayers like the rosary, or they may even be spontaneous and heartfelt. Regardless of how we pray, though, we do pray.) The thing is, though, that while we may pray on a regular basis, there is nothing like a crisis to get us to pray more frequently and more fervently. 

I suspect the reason a crisis motivates our prayer life like nothing else is that when a crisis occurs we become aware, as in few other ways, of our limitations and weaknesses. It is during times of crisis that we have to admit that we aren’t sufficient unto ourselves and that we need God.    

Now while on one level I think most of us would admit that we need God, on another level I suspect that most of us also live as though God were an ancillary and optional part of our lives. Now certainly we acknowledge God’s existence and we do pay heed to God when we pray. But in regard to regularly recognizing and admitting our need for and dependence on God, I’m guessing most of us only do this when we have run out of other options. We are like children who insist that “I can do it myself” only to discover that “doing it ourselves” was more difficult than we thought, or that we can’t do it at all.     

Despite the fact that it is so often difficult for us to admit our need for God, God doesn’t hold this against us. In fact, quite the opposite is true. God is pleased whenever we recognize our need for God and come to God in prayer. God is like a loving parent who doesn’t chide us when our abilities are insufficient and our efforts fail. Rather when this happens and we come running to God for help and comfort, we discover that God has always been there, waiting for us with outstretched arms and all the grace that we need. 

Pages