A Noise Like a Strong Driving Wind?

This Sunday is Pentecost, the day when we recall the dramatic outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the first followers of Jesus. This year as I reflected on the story from Acts, I was struck by the powerful images – the sights and sounds that accompanied this outpouring – especially how the Spirit is described as sounding like “a strong driving wind” (NABRE) or like “the rush of a violent wind” (NRSV; Acts 2:2).

We often experience the voice of God in our lives as a quiet thing – a still small voice, a whisper, a stirring of the heart, or the murmurings of conscience. And it is often a slow communication – a voice that speaks in layers as time passes, a message that takes hold slowly over the course of many years.

But the Pentecost story reminds us of other ways that God communicates. Sometimes the divine voice is loud, powerful, fast and laser-like in its precision. The NRSV’s word “violent” lingers here – not violence in the sense of harming anyone – but violent in the sense of strong enough to wreak havoc on our minds and hearts, wild enough to unsettle or even unseat us. Of course the goal of this unsettling is not ultimately turmoil but healing and life. God speaks in mysterious ways!

Will you share with me what the voice of God sounds like in your life? Is it a gentle whisper or a strong driving wind? Is there a metaphor that comes to mind to describe your own experience?

I’d love to hear from you – as a comment directly on the blog page, or as a reply to email if you receive the blog that way, or as a facebook comment if you are reading there.

Happy Pentecost!

Untitled  by Kim Young Gil (1940-2008)

Untitled by Kim Young Gil (1940-2008)

The Sacred Art Pilgrim

As you all know, I choose the artwork that goes along with my blog posts very carefully and deliberately.  In fact, sometimes it takes me longer to find the art than to write the post!  It is my hope that the art I select resonates with the words you read and that your mind is filled with beauty, understanding and ideas.  Above all, I want to communicate to you in both word and image that there is something mysterious, powerful and transformative happening in our lives all the time.  I want to believe this myself, and art (like words) helps me believe it and, hopefully, communicate it. 

Last week I discovered a treasure trove of sacred art, and I thought many of you would like to explore this treasure for yourselves.  John Kohan, an international journalist by trade (over 20 years with TIME magazine) and a sacred artist by nature, has set out to gather and display – on his website – beautiful, modern, sacred art.  His collection includes religious art from all over the world in a variety of media and styles. 

You can visit John’s website here:  The Sacred Art Pilgrim.  If you click on “sacred art meditations” (at the top right of his homepage), you can select moments from the life of Christ, themes of faith, or other bible stories, and can view relevant art along with Bible readings, meditations and explanations.  Or you can click on “sacred artists” and view a variety of gorgeous art collected there, along with interesting information about the artists.

John’s own first piece of sacred art was a pencil drawing of the sower and the seed that he drew at six years old (which I would like to see, but it does not yet appear on the site!).  His lifelong journey through sacred art is ours to behold.  

Friends with God? Dream On.

The overwhelming response to my question about whether or not we can be friends with God was yes – emphatically yes!  Some of you were clear that you know God can be your friend because he already is!  Others added helpful distinctions:  God is a different kind of friend than our buddies or even our human soulmates. 

I agree with you.  And you all did such a nice job writing about it that I might just need to turn this blog over to the people.  You should share with me more often!

Now I promised you my own thoughts.  If the question were simply asked on a philosophical level, I might wonder.  I might surmise it was wishful thinking on the part of human beings to aspire to be “friends” with God.  But as usual, Scripture sets me straight, and that’s just the way I like it.  Vatican II refers to Scripture as “the words of God expressed in human language” (Dei Verbum 13).  I can’t think of a better way to learn about friendship with God.

The first Scripture verse that always comes to mind when I think about being God’s friend is Exodus 33:11:  “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.”  The transcendent God of the Israelites was talking with Moses?  No matter how awesome Moses was (and he was), he was still a human being, a creature, an imperfect person.  But there was an intimacy between God and Moses that went down in Israelite lore as genuine friendship.

Abraham was another ancient who was called God’s friend.  He is described as such three times in the Bible:  2 Chron. 20:7, Isa. 41:8, and James 2:23.  How would you like it if this is how people described you?  What if, instead of “short lady with curly brown hair and a bunch of kids,” people said of me, “You know, Amy, the friend of God?”  Gulp!  God give me the faith of Abraham!

Jesus, of course, called his disciples his friends.  And not only his disciples.  Remember this one:  “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Matt. 11:19)?  This was an accusation levelled at Jesus – friend of sinners!  Never has a truer accusation been made!

Of course, we would be entirely remiss on the topic if we did not recall the remarkable words of Jesus said in farewell to his eleven faithful disciples (Judas had left the table):  “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you” (Jn. 15:12-16).  No commentary needed.  These are words to pray by.

And finally, I share with you a passage that says it all.  Yes, Judas had left the table, only to be reunited with Jesus in the garden, where he would kiss Jesus and betray him unto death, even death on a cross.  How did Jesus address Judas as he approached in the garden?  He called him “friend” (Mt. 26:50).

Catherine Doherty wrote that “all men who have religion of some sort are dreamers, and dreamers of a very special kind.  They dream of unity between God and men.”

Friendship is about intimacy.  It is an intentional intimacy.  One of you aptly quoted the wisdom of St. Catherine of Siena:  “God is closer to us than water is to a fish.”  This is the stuff of dreams, indeed, but we know this dream is true.  So dream on, friends of God, dream on!  

Moses and the Lord had an unusual friendship, as depicted in this gorgeous painting by Jack Baumgartner of Moses in the cleft of rock as the glory of the Lord passed by (Ex. 33).   Moses in the Rock.   Copyright 2016 Jack Baumgartner.  Published with permission.  Click on painting to view more of Jack's work.

Moses and the Lord had an unusual friendship, as depicted in this gorgeous painting by Jack Baumgartner of Moses in the cleft of rock as the glory of the Lord passed by (Ex. 33).  Moses in the Rock.  Copyright 2016 Jack Baumgartner.  Published with permission.  Click on painting to view more of Jack's work.

Your Thoughts on Friendship with God

What a wonderful week of hearing from many of you on the blog, by email, on facebook and even in person about your reflections on friendship with God.  I learned so much from and about you.  I want to thank Burr Datz for getting us started.  Burr, you’re the best. 

I hope many of you will enjoy reading what others thought about this topic by clicking on “Comments” below last week’s post “Friends with God.”  You’ll find a variety of thoughts and some really interesting connections, distinctions and personal convictions.  Thank you all for your thoughtful responses.  (Those of you who responded by email and facebook, I’ve collected your responses and posted them there anonymously.)

Next week, I'll offer a few of my own thoughts based on some Scripture passages that have deeply impacted me along the way.

In the meantime, I’m not sure I could say it better than Jim Tottenham, who posted for us this series of questions to ponder as we ask ourselves what friendship is, and how it affects our understanding of being friends with God:

Being a friend of God is an awesome question. I think about what that personally means to me and ask myself what it means to be a friend and does this apply to being God’s friend:

Do I stay in touch on a regular basis?
Do I put my trust in him?
Would I let him take any of my treasured possessions?
Would I rely on my friend to do the same for me as I would do for him?
Would I intentionally do anything to harm him in any way?
Would I drop everything and go with him if he needed me?
Would I defend his name if he was falsely accused of something?
Would I tell others about him and what he means to me?
Would I easily introduce him to others and not worry about their reactions?
Would I always believe in him?
Would I never abandon him?
Would I give my life for him?
Sketched replicas of Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam" by Gregor.    ©   2012-2016 Gregor1992.

Sketched replicas of Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam" by Gregor.  © 2012-2016 Gregor1992.

Living a Hidden Life

I recently came across an article by Fr. David May, a priest of Madonna House, the apostolate founded by Catherine Doherty.  I asked permission to share it here because I thought it would speak to many of you. 

As human beings, I think we have a natural desire for greatness.  Of course, greatness can be defined in many ways.  In this article, Fr. David May describes the greatness of an ordinary life, the kind of life Jesus lived during those hidden years in Nazareth, the kind of quiet, ordinary life that most of us lead every day. 

Fr. May describes six joys of Nazareth – six challenges of our ordinary lives – and encourages us to embrace this path of love and thereby embrace Christ himself.  As the Gospels tell us time and again, it is the small things that have the potential to be great.

Thank you to Fr. David May and Madonna House Publications for sharing this reflection with us.

 * * * * *

“The Joys of Nazareth”

By Fr. David May

Society offers us many “joys.” We are all too familiar with them, sometimes to our embarrassment as Christians. The media proposes to us the joys of material prosperity and the joy of being young, athletic, and popular. We are invited to reach for the joy of the ever better, the ever exciting, the ever new experience.

There is an unceasing search for the joy of the perfect relationship—the mirage of being perfectly understood. Others invest their energies in the joy of power over others or in enjoying various pleasures with reckless abandon. Many admire the one who rejoices in being “cool” and “always in control” of his destiny. We think, If only I could be so self-assured.

A Christian is called to live joyously, but he rejoices principally in the Lord who loves him and saves him. When we say to the Lord, You are my joymy happiness lies in you alone, he smiles upon us with great tenderness. And he offers us some treasures straight from his heart, treasures which I call “the joys of Nazareth.”

1. Going unnoticed

First, there is the joy of going unnoticed. You know, you pour yourself out preparing a lovely meal, weeding the garden, putting in extra time at work or at the parish—and no one notices. You hardly get a perfunctory “thanks.” You find yourself taken for granted like the proverbial old shoe.

Whoever notices an old shoe anyway? You put it on, it serves you quietly and without fanfare, and when you’re finished with it, you toss it under the bed or into the closet. You never give it a second thought, let alone a fresh coat of polish! And your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you (Mt 6:4).

2. Being noticed at the wrong time

And then there’s the joy of being noticed—at the wrong time! Just when you’re at your very worst—losing your temper, putting a dent in the car, burning the bacon, saying something foolish—then everybody notices!

Suddenly you become the center of conversation, or at least of sideways glances. The spotlight is now on you. And so you stand there, naked, your weaknesses exposed, not only to yourself (bad enough) but to others (humiliating). Family life in particular is chocked full of such fare.

Rejoice, blessed one, you have just received the second joy of Nazareth!

3. Boredom

Third, there is the joy of being bored. Nazareth is by nature a series of many monotonous moments: feeding the little ones, peeling the spuds, emptying the trash, swishing out the toilet bowl, fixing the car. All of these are daily fare, hardly scintillating in themselves. But monotony is also a treasure for those with eyes to see. Repetition offers our hearts and minds the freedom to pray. For example, the Jesus prayer: “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This prayer allows us to enter as little children into the heart of God. Repetition is an occasion to purify our hearts of useless noise and to enter into silence.

Few seem aware of this, but it is true. And boredom offers us yet another gospel gem: the chance to act out of love alone, with no other apparent compensation.

4. Your time is not your own

Another joy of Nazareth is that of not having time to do what we would like. Just when you have set aside those  precious few hours or minutes for yourself to read that book, enjoy your hobby, listen to music, pray, or just sit quietly, the roof, so to speak, caves in. There is a crisis, someone needs immediate attention, the plumbing bursts, the roast is sizzling into ashes, etc., etc.

The days go by and run into months and years of this. I have no time for myself any more. My own life is not even my own! But it is then that the Lord smiles upon us, and the words of St. Paul can rise up from our hearts: I live now not with my own life, but with the life of Christ who lives in me… I cannot bring myself to give up God’s gift (Gal 2:20-21).

5. Misunderstandings

The fifth joy of Nazareth is that of not being perfectly understood. Perhaps you have had the experience. Even those who love us most dearly and know us the best, often do not really grasp the deepest movements of our hearts. This can be a shock at first, a source of bitter disappointment as time goes on. But it can also be a joy if we use such painful moments to enter the bittersweet world of our solitude.

And what do we learn there in the heart of loneliness? We learn that we are made for God alone, and that he alone knows us as we long to be known. And he alone loves us as we long to be loved.

6. Interruptions

The sixth joy of Nazareth is that of being fragmented and dispersed by the demands of life. We are pushed and pulled this way and that, seldom getting anything done the way we had intended. In fact, life seems to be a great series of unfinished projects. For those who love order, this can be excruciating.

A greater pattern

But gradually we come to see that our life is part of a greater pattern whose magnificent dimensions are beyond our ability to grasp. It is our Father who is the Source of this plan. He asks us to be content to be nourished by him moment by moment. The Bread he offers us is Jesus himself, who will teach us to trust and to be a child. In him, after all, all things hold together (Col 1:17).

The ultimate joy of Nazareth is, of course, you and me—us—together, not in the greeting card sense of such terms, but in the bare-boned reality of our call to live together as families of love in all our poverty and in all our glory.

The great miracle

Union in love is, was, and always will be the great Christian miracle, the one for which Jesus prayed so earnestly: so that my own joy may be in you and your joy be complete. This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you (Jn 15:11-12).

Such love is the flowering of God’s life within us, rooted in the good soil of hearts made great through embracing the ordinary. For, wonder of wonders, when we embrace the everyday “joys” of Nazareth, it is the Lord himself whom we embrace.

Originally published in Madonna House's publication "Restoration," January 2005.  Shared here with permission.

To find out more about Madonna House, click here.  To visit Madonna House Publications, click here.

The Holy Family Sleeping, with Angels , Rembrandt van Rijn, pen and brown ink on paper, 1645.

The Holy Family Sleeping, with Angels, Rembrandt van Rijn, pen and brown ink on paper, 1645.