Transfigure Me, Lord

In preparation for an upcoming talk on aging as a time of spiritual grace, I’ve been thinking a lot about the changes we undergo as we age.  I wrote this litany for the program, and I wanted to share it here. 

Whether we are growing old or just growing older, the transitions and challenges we face can be painful.  But as in all kinds of change, in nature and in life, through pain and transition, we can become something new.  In our surrenders, we find the new life we have longed for. 

Like Christ on the mountain, we are transfigured as we age.  We are changed from within and without.  Outwardly we age; inwardly we can be illuminated.  Like the Transfigured Christ, we can shine like the sun!

So pray with me:  “Transfigure me, Lord!”  Click on the file below to view or print the litany.

Transfigure Me, Lord:  An Aging Prayer.pdf

Mosaic of the Face of the Transfigured Christ, Church of the Transfiguration, Orleans, Massachusetts

Mosaic of the Face of the Transfigured Christ, Church of the Transfiguration, Orleans, Massachusetts

The Death of Our Loved Ones Makes Our Deaths Easier

When I was in 6th grade, on a beautiful day in September, my best friend’s mother died of cancer.  It was September 8, the feast day of the Birth of Mary.  My friend’s mother was a faithful Catholic, and her name was Mary.  I wanted to believe there was some connection.  I wanted to believe that death had meaning and purpose.  I wanted to believe that God had not abandoned this family.

This was my first real experience with death.  Watching my friend process and accept her mother’s death was an education.  I saw the pain in her family, but there was an undercurrent of hope that made it all just bearable.  Perhaps some measure of her mother’s own faith remained in the hearts of each member of the family, and they wisely clung to it.

Hope in God does not stop death – it did not stop the death of Jesus – but it provides a fuller perspective on living and dying.  It is the horizon that prevents us from becoming totally disoriented in an uncertain world.  It is the invitation to believe that the end of a temporal life is but the beginning of an eternal one.

When my grandmother died some years later, I clung to that same Christian hope.  I imagined her reuniting with all of her friends and family members who had passed on before her.  And I imagined our own reunion in the future.  I realized then that when my time came, my own death would be easier because I knew someone was waiting for me on the other side – a family member, someone close to me.  I realized that even in death our loved ones serve us.  Their death makes our own death easier.  They have gone before us to share in the triumph of Christ and the power of his resurrection.  With Christ, they say to us, “I go to prepare a place for you…so that where I am, there you may be also” (Jn. 14:3).

In the parish of my youth, tucked away in a side office, there was a cross on the wall.  On the cross was a placid but triumphant Christ the King.  Arms outstretched on what an old prayer called his “instrument of torture,” his face, his raiment, his body seemed to say, “Take that, death!  Look at me!  I am healthy and robust!  On this cross, I wear a crown!  For everlasting!”  It was an image of Christian hope, that orienting horizon.  

The pain of death is part of life, and we share it with those we love.  But our hope is in what comes next, in what we will share with them when our own time comes.  Our hope is in the triumph of Christ, the God who raised him from the dead, and the place he has prepared for all of us to be together. 

If it were not so, Jesus said, I would have told you (Jn. 14:2).  

My Salvation

Those who have met me in recent years may be surprised to know that I was a somewhat melancholic teen.  For years I saw the world as very black and white; I saw good and bad.  I wanted everything to be good, and I was unhappy that some things were bad.  Despite my own happy childhood I looked around at the world and saw what I considered to be a negative place.  I couldn’t figure out how I fit into it or how it could ever feel “right.” 

I remember a conversation I had with the man who mentored me through those teen years and many years beyond – a parish priest who put up with my melancholy and who succeeded in the careful balancing act of loving me just as I was while simultaneously bringing about a substantial change in me.  One day I told him just how bad this life is, just how miserable.  I was armed with a quote from St. Teresa of Avila that I thought captured the whole awful mess of life.  “Life,” I said, “is like a bad night in a bad inn.”

I was sure that God and all his angels and saints agreed with me.  But Fr. Tim didn’t.  He didn’t agree with me at all.  And his response shifted the entire worldview going on in my teenage brain.  It changed the way I saw everything including myself, him, God, suffering, my future.  It changed the way I saw my world and how I fit into it.  Fr. Tim told me life isn’t a bad night in a bad inn.  “Life,” he said, “is the moment of your salvation.”

I have never stopped believing that.  I have never stopped seeing my world and my life from this fuller perspective – one that recognizes life as a gracious moment, a time of encounters and relationships that bring me closer and closer to the heart of God if only I will allow it.  Sure, sometimes the inn feels run down or drafty or even dangerous.  Sometimes the other people in the inn rob, cheat and steal – or gossip or disappoint or annoy me.  Sometimes it is dark and the night in the inn feels long.  But the moment of my salvation is long, long enough for me to settle into the beauty of this inn and its people, long enough to learn how to live here with them and with myself, long enough to grow into my own salvation.  God has not left me here to flounder until morning comes.  He lives with me here, in this time and place.  This is the moment of my salvation.

All Is Vanity!

There are a few books of the Bible that I really find amusing.  My students know that one of them is the Book of Tobit.  In fact I apparently made one too many jokes about that book and was pointedly told by one of my students (thank you, Sr. Mahilia) that I needed to rein it in! 

The Book of Ecclesiastes is another book that amuses me.  That is, when it isn’t making me totally depressed!  Let’s put it this way – Ecclesiastes may not be the book to read when you’re already having a bad day.

The best-known verse in the Book of Ecclesiastes is probably:  “Vanity of vanities!  All is vanity” (1:2).  “Vanity” is the typical English translation of the Hebrew word hebel, which literally means “vapor” or “breath.”  The word is used 38 times in the Book of Ecclesiastes to describe the fleeting and even futile nature of life.  The Good News Bible (not known for its technical accuracy, but pretty good at capturing the "gist" of things) even goes so far as to translate the verse this way:  "It is useless, useless.  Life is useless, all useless."  

The author goes on to write other things we might find surprising.  He writes that seeking wisdom is an “unhappy business” (1:13); there is nothing better for human beings than to eat and drink (2:24); we aren’t really any better off than animals – not in life or death (3:18-21); and the dead (all of them) “know nothing” and “have no reward” (9:5).  

Sure, there are a few uplifting verses in Ecclesiastes (a lovely passage on the value of friendship, for example; 4:9-12), and the author does retain and encourage a stalwart faith in the midst of his observations of life’s futilities (3:12-14; 4:18-20).  But those who try to paint over this book with an overly optimistic gloss are ignoring its brooding tone and many of its messages. 

Some have even questioned whether this unusual book belongs in the canon of Scripture.  After all, doesn’t the maxim “life is vanity” contradict the basic biblical belief that life is a sacred gift from God?  But there is a stark realism here, written down and poured out on the sacred page.  That is why I don’t find it strange that the Book of Ecclesiastes found its way into the canon.  I don’t think the ideas we read here mean that life really is hebel, or futile.  I don’t think the author’s own uncertainty about the after-life means that we need to be uncertain.  But this book allows us to express our frustrations and fears, and it comforts us.  It allows us to have dark moments and say, “I don’t get it” and “It isn’t fair.”  It allows us to read and say “I’m not sure either” and “What is death, really?” 

If nothing else, this special book reminds us that opening the Bible always begins a conversation with God.  We can express every emotion, ask every question, and enter into every mystery.  And when we enter into the very honest and very human ideas we find in the Book of Ecclesiastes, we can be assured that our God understands and responds:  “I hear you, my people.  Keep talking to me.”  

 
Another winner from Annie Vallaton's  Good News Bible  illustrations.

Another winner from Annie Vallaton's Good News Bible illustrations.

 

A Texan's Tribute to the Long, Hard Winter

Every winter – usually sometime toward the end of February – I begin to ask myself how in the world I ended up in Connecticut.  I meander through my mind and the chain of events that brought me here, and I always come to the same conclusion:  this is where I belong.  But it doesn’t make winter any shorter.

As a native Texan, I doubt that the kind of winters I experience in the Northeast will ever be easy for me.  In fact, I’ve noticed they aren’t even easy for the people who have lived here all their lives.  Just about every year they say, “That was a tough winter!”  Even when tough is normal, it is still tough.

What I like most about winter is the way we all get through it together.  It’s rare to be out shoveling snow alone.  There’s always a neighbor or two out, suffering along with you.  You always have something to discuss with strangers at the store.  We ask each other, “Are we going to make it?” or we just call out across the street some quick word of commiseration as we dash to and from our cars (if you can “dash” across an icy driveway).  I’ll always remember a sweet moment after Mass one Sunday when I saw a priest lean down and encourage one of his elderly parishioners:  “You’ll only need that fleece for about one more week.”

Another thing I like about winter is that it ends.  When the warmth of spring hits, we all find our way outside – to the beach, to the park, or we hit a trail somewhere.  Here we find camaraderie too.  We got through it together.  We did our time, we endured, we never really lost hope that there would indeed come a day when we could leave the fleece jacket at home.  We feel we earned this beautiful day.

Perhaps it is simply my own determination to find some meaning in the personal challenge that winter poses for me, but I find winter to be a profound metaphor for the natural cycles of suffering that we endure in life, and for the Paschal Mystery itself.  Of course this isn’t an original idea – but now that I’ve actually lived through what I can honestly call a “hard winter” – now I really get it. 

I treasure three seasons in Connecticut, and I endure one.  The beauty of the other three seasons is only enhanced by my memories of winter, by the ways winter has influenced and changed me.  And in this I am reminded that the Risen Christ still bore – still bears – the wounds of crucifixion (Lk. 24:39; Jn. 20:25).  The victorious Lamb worshiped in the Book of Revelation is the Lamb who was slain (Rev. 5).  And this is as it should be.  Some wounds, forged in the toughest of times, should never be forgotten – especially those which bring forth new life.  No, we never forget about winter here in the Northeast.  Winter is part of who we are.  But we know and we believe that even the hardest winter leads to spring – always has, always will.