Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Endings and Beginnings

A Möbius strip is a simple and fascinating figure that connects two ends of a rectangular strip in such a way that there is only a single edge and a single side. As we get to the end of a school term, and as I end my two years in Singapore, it’s an appropriate image for illustrating the integration of ends and beginnings. We might see some things as ending and others as beginning, but actually the whole of life is one unbroken reality, as mysterious as it is obvious.

One example of this is found in the making of major decisions in life. Those who get married or commit themselves to a particular way of life think that they are limiting their options, ending their freedoms, and restricting their future choices. Yet those who fully engage new life realities in their major decisions discover that their options have widened, their freedoms have increased, and their choices have become much more meaningful. (My Singapore fling is just one such example.)

Richard Niehaus once wrote that “we act in the courage of our uncertainties.” The word decide comes from the Latin decider, “to cut off.” In deciding “you have cut off the alternatives and pray you have decided rightly. But you do not know for sure. Or else you are trapped in the tangled web of indecision. He then quotes 1 Cor 4:3-5 “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. … Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.” When we make a choice, we enter a depth dimension of life and open up a whole new web of possibilities, previously unseen and unknown. It’s only later that one can say: “That was the best decision I ever made.”

The fact is that one’s interests, priorities, and values emerge in whatever choice is made in life. Gradually, these come to the fore and either colour or hijack the particulars of your life such that the inner core of your soul’s interest – otherwise known as your vocation – emerges to blossom in the soil where it finds itself planted. So there is little to worry about in this respect. Make the decisions that you are invited to make, respond to the people and situations that invite your response, and step into that uncertain future with a core confidence, one that becomes more real and steady as it is expressed and lived out. But keep feeding the soul.

I keep only one little sign on my desk. It is one that I found in a small shop years ago and that I still find meaningful. It reads “What would you start to do if you knew that you could not fail?” This is the sort of sentiment that invites engagement, the doing of things. Because it is only in the doing that you can set the conditions for your future positive decisions. You cannot see around the corner, but you can get yourself to the corner so as to see what lies beyond. This approach is particularly helpful in difficulties, as expressed in one of my favorite poems and hymns: “Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom, // Lead Thou me on! // The night is dark, and I am far from home // —Lead Thou me on! // Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see // The distant scene—one step enough for me.” (John Henry Newman)

Ends and beginnings are two sides of the Möbius strip of life’s journey. Don’t try to peek over the edge. Instead, enjoy what is there, pursue what is important, and keep moving on.

Sunday, June 8, 2014


There is a fascinating dynamic that occurs when a group of individuals gathers for a specific purpose. The focus, direction, and purpose of the gathering create the conditions for its success. The cumulative human capacity and interests of those brought together, along with the hopes and positive intentions that they bring, set the stage for allowing the greater potential of human community (and God’s grace) to become an active and present reality. Any positive gathering of individuals brings to life this mysterious dynamic of the “more” in human relational capacity. It’s an example of God’s true presence among real people doing real things in real situations. The Golden Rule lives!

The occasion for this reflection is the upcoming feast of Pentecost, commemorating the gift of the Holy Spirit to the early Church. It is well described by St. John Baptist de La Salle in one of his meditations: “On this day the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles and on all those who were gathered together with them in the large upper room. He came to bring them a new law, the law of grace and love, and poured himself out upon them like a strong, driving wind. This was to show that just as God in creating man had, as Scripture expresses it, breathed into him the breath of life, so too, in communicating a new life to his disciples to live only by grace, he breathed into them his divine Spirit to give them some share in his own divine life.” (Med.43.1)

The human basis for this festive theophany – grace builds on nature – happens any time people who have a common purpose come together. It could be a birthday celebration, a planning session, a board meeting, a wedding or a funeral, a tennis match or FIFA game, a history class or study session. Each has its own character, purpose, hopes, limitations, focus and outcomes. Sometimes we get a bit overwrought when we cannot “control” the outcome of these gatherings, and some people are more comfortable with situations that are more predictable than others. But I would submit that the most rewarding, human, and enlivening events of this sort are those which carry an edge of unpredictability to them. As C.S. Lewis observed through Mr. Beaver about Aslan, the lion who has God-like characteristics in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: “He'll be coming and going. One day you'll see him and another you won't. He doesn't like being tied down - and of course he has other countries to attend to. It's quite all right. He'll often drop in. Only you mustn't press him. He's wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”

The most enigmatic encounters with others and with the real circumstances of our lives are those that involve an openness to this mystery of God, such as liturgies, retreats, and faith-focused gatherings. But they also include anywhere “where two or three are gathered” in God’s name, because this is exactly where the Holy Spirit, the dynamic and active presence of the resurrected Jesus in union with the Father, is most immediately engaged. The living face of God, the Holy Spirit, is found in and through actual relationships, real encounters with real people in real circumstances. Insofar as we approach these as true encounters with God’s presence, as Jesus did, they become the spiritual raindrops that quietly ripple through our souls.

In the school setting, De La Salle highlights that we actually do that all the time, or should: “You carry out a work that requires you to touch hearts, but this you cannot do except by the Spirit of God. Pray to him to give you today the same grace he gave the holy apostles, and ask him that, after filling you with his Holy Spirit to sanctify yourselves, he also communicate himself to you in order to procure the salvation of others.” (Med.43.3)


This week, we celebrated the “Ascension of Jesus” into heaven (Luke 24:50-53 - Mark 16:19 – Acts 1:9-11), which occurred 40 days after his resurrection in the biblical narrative. It is the commemoration of the strong and long-standing belief that Jesus was fully taken up into heaven, resurrected body and all, so that the Holy Spirit might be sent “who will teach you all things.”

Back in the 1970’s I remember going to a beach in California called Goat Rock. In order to get there, you had to wind your way along the cliffsides for a time before descending to the beach itself. At one of the parking areas on top, we had stopped to watch a hang glider laboriously assemble his flimsy contraption. After about 30 minutes, he was ready, put on his helmet, strapped himself in, and waddling to the edge of the cliff stood poised, looking over the ocean ahead and the beach way below. He said: “Okay. Bye.” and then stepped out into nothing.

I had expected him to drop straight down and then rise up, like a jet taking off from a carrier. But instead something amazing happened. He hadn’t quite stepped off. He had leaned over into the wind that was coming up the side of the cliff. Then he turned the wings of the glider just so, and he rose straight up as if he were standing on an invisible elevator. The rest of us just gawked as he went higher and higher. After a while, I looked around expecting someone to say “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking up into the sky?” (Luke 1:11) It was as nice an ascension as I have ever witnessed.

Who knows what the experience with Jesus was like, except for what we know from Scripture and the Church’s tradition? But if I can use that hang-glider analogy, there is an element of genuine, practical trust involved in all of this. When the young man leaned over the cliff, into the invisible wind, he placed his trust in what he knew to be true, and because he took that leap of faith, ascension happened and he was carried up by that which cannot be seen but can be felt and noticed by what it touches. Similarly, God’s grace manifested in Jesus Christ cannot be easily seen, but it is felt and experienced by its effect and impact on others, if not on oneself. The ascension teaches me to be open to God’s life, God’s breath, AKA the Holy Spirit (from the Hebrew Ruah, meaning breath or wind), to step out into God’s arms and trust the Spirit to be present, whatever the circumstances. It is that descent of the Holy Spirit which we celebrate next Sunday at Pentecost, an event that Jesus’ ascension initiated.

Anthony Bloom says it well: “We no longer know Christ according to the flesh, we do not touch Him as Thomas did, we do not hear and see Him as Apostles and the women, and all crowds of people did, but we know the Christ of the Spirit, the risen and ascended Christ, who is everywhere where two or three are gathered together, who is everywhere when a lonely soul cries for Him, when a life is being dedicated to Him. And so we are confronted with this mystery of a separation, which is a victory, a separation, which leads us to a new knowledge, to a new discovery of Christ. His Divinity is no longer veiled for us by His human presence, He is revealed to us as God resplendent not only in His Godhead but also in His humanity. And so it happens also all the time when people meet on a human level and then discover one another in the Holy Spirit, a discovery that makes humanity resplendent with eternity.”

In the end, the Ascension of Jesus is about embracing the life of God in Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, and being carried by his love and example into being and doing the same for one another. No hanglider or elevators are necessary. Just lean over into the life of the Holy Spirit and tilt your wings correctly.