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A Forest Full of Junipers

I don’t know if any of you know about Brother Juniper. It’s possible we all know something of St. Francis and how he preached to birds and shook hands with wolves and this and that. Probably we’ve seen Francis in somebody’s lawn holding up the bowl for the birds to bathe in. But I wish we had some statues of Brother Juniper. He really would make you stop and look twice to see if it were a statue of a friar or a circus clown out there on the lawn.

There’s too many stories to tell here, and they’re all good. Most you can find in the book The Little Flowers of St. Francis, a collection of imaginative and often humorous tales about what the early Franciscan Friars felt their way of life was all about. Francis shaking hands with the wolf is in there. But Brother Juniper is the hero of quite a few of the tales — which lets you know that he was a kind of role model for those early friars. And what a wonderfully funny model he is, too.

Let’s see. How about the story when a fellow friar was sick, and Brother Juniper went to a neighboring farm and simply cut up the nearest pig to feed his ailing brother back to health? As you can imagine, the local farmer was more than a little upset. Brother Juniper’s spontaneous charity almost cost him a few bruises that time, but fortunately St. Francis ran up and calmed the farmer down. The farmer even gave them the entire pig in the end. Good old Brother Juniper.

Or how about the one when Brother Juniper went out to preach and a crowd of villagers came expecting a learned doctor or theologian? Brother Juniper was not going to try to be overly-educated for anybody. Instead, he ran to the playground and began playing see-saw with the village children — as if to say: “Look, I’m not someone learned or important — just a simple soul with a simple message of Jesus and the Gospel.” The villagers were not impressed. But I’m sure the children loved it.

Ah, Brother Juniper. I wish we had your statue outside — playing on the see-saw, carrying a local pig to feed your fellow friars. All those strange and wonderful stories, and all to show one thing: that you just wanted to love God in the here and now. No wonder St. Francis slapped you on the back and shouted to all who would listen: “If only I had a forest full of Junipers!”

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Heroes: Bigger than Life

A lot of our time is spent looking for heroes. Sometimes we read about them in our favorite books — the Sherlock Holmes in the thriller detective stories, the Superman of the comics, the ever-favorite Clifford the Big Red Dog (for those younger and wiser audiences). Movies also try to give us heroes of many shapes and sizes. There’s everybody from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s one-man army, to the wonder nanny in Mary Poppins, to finally (I can’t resist) the small strong courage of Frodo Baggins in the epic Lord of the Rings. No matter where we look, we can find these larger-than-life characters who capture our interest and imagination.

The seventh-grade class at STA and I tried to make up our own hero one Thursday morning. They had a lot of great ideas and before long they came up with (dah dah dum ) “Telo-Man” — a phone-carrying hero who saves the helpless homeowner from prank phone calls. He has caller ID, great clothes, telekinesis, you name it. Truly a hero on the larger-than-life scale ready to save us from the troubles that surround us.

We didn’t stop at Telo-Man, though. There were two other heroes to consider — Moses and Jesus. Just as Telo-Man rescues the world from those devious prank-calling cranks, so too did Moses help rescue the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. And just as Telo-Man carries with him the power of telekinesis and caller ID, so does Jesus carry in himself the power of the Spirit poured out in His death and resurrection to bring us to union with God. Telo-Man may be pretty awesome, but Moses and Jesus give us the real deal.

And that may be the difference between the heroes we try to create for ourselves and the heroes that God sends us. A lot of our heroes try to take us away from the problems and troubles and keep us wrapped in a false security. Superman saves the day so that we won’t have to. But people like Moses and Jesus help us move right into the problems of who we are, leaving our false secure Egypts and moving into the unknown newness of the Spirit.

Superman and the rest may be larger-than-life — but only Jesus promises to be Life Itself!

March for Life 2014

It was a cold one. That’s what everyone was saying. Forecasters had announced days before it was going to be a cold one. The archbishop who made the opening remarks at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception began by remarking what a cold one it was — and said that it had been ordered specially for the Canadian archbishop so he’d feel at home. Cardinal Sean O’Malley from Boston resumed the theme from the presider’s chair, reminding the thousands of people swelling the pews that, yes, indeed, it was cold outside. But, he went on, “the weather is perfect. It tells people that we are serious.” It might be seriously cold outside, but, hey, we’re still gonna march. Seriously.

We met the cold coming down to D.C. from Boston. Six guys in a Pilot, on the road by 5:15 AM, and hoping to skirt around this rumor of a storm and make the District in eight hours. Massachusetts passed us by in the darkness, Connecticut opened up in the slow sunrise. New York just looked at us and yawned. Then we hit New Jersey, and the storm hit us. After twelve hours on the road crawling through the snow we rolled thankfully into the driveway of the Franciscan Monastery with the flakes swarming the air thicker than flies.

“Gee,” someone said as we staggered out, “it sure is a cold one.”

Seriously, it was.

That did not stop thousands of people from traveling to Washington D.C. to the 2014 March for Life. Seminarians from Boston had taken the train, other groups had taken buses or packed themselves together in carpools; together we converged at the Immaculate Conception Basilica for the Vigil Mass the night before the March. The crypt beneath the church was filled with young people with backpacks, group leaders with colored flags, priests in their collars and sisters in their veils. At the far end the seminarians congregated in a vast crowd of white surplices. It took some time, but finally the Mass began and that excited flock of men were processing up the stairs into the main church as steady and solemn as any ace crew of altar boys.

During his homily, delivered to a packed Basilica still warming up from the unusual chill, Cardinal Sean O’Malley emphasized the importance that the March for Life had for the American Culture and for the Catholic Church. His illustration of that fact was the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes — the vain monarch in question being the prevailing mindset of convenience and deceptive self-interest, awakened to the folly of its actions only by a child’s prophetic voice. The Church, concluded the Cardinal, must be that prophet. Not only must Catholics stand up against social wrong — even more importantly, they must stand up to proclaim the positive, joyful message of the Gospel. Only the resounding thrill of gladness can shake the world of its icy coat of cynicism, of egoistical self-destruction. Cold must give way to fire in the end.

Having been inspired by this powerful Vigil Mass, we went home, ate pizza, and went to bed.

The day of the March itself was sunny. Windy, too. Once we had gone to Mass at the Church of the Sacred Hearts — a gathering of all the Boston groups, presided over by the Cardinal — a quick stop at the Monastery to get more layers and a quick bite to eat brought us to the beginning of the actual March. Flags waved. Breath steamed from cheering mouths. Somewhere, a band played. Thousands upon thousands walked the sloping road up to the steps of the Capitol: a tide of human beings beating once more on the marble shores of the nation. Drops of water hollow away a stone, they say. How many drops will hollow the Capitol enough to make room for change?

What more to say? We came, we marched, we went home. The cold remained, as it always does — but, as the Cardinal says, it is our job to breathe just a little more warmth into the cold around us. If one more March has injected just that ounce of grace and hope into the country and the world, then we will have marched seriously. For reals.

Asking at the Register

SteveLambert_Library_Book_CartSome years ago I was in a bookstore in Rome looking for books in English. This was before my Italian was perfected (which it still isn’t) and I wanted to make sure I had something to read which would not force me to use hours of concentration and a dictionary. But it seemed the more I searched the farther I got from finding anything at all. There were books in Italian, French, Spanish, and –for some reason known only to the Powers that Be — Hindi (or something that might as well be Hindi). No English. All this time the owner of the store, a smiling German lady, looked over at me from the cash register and beamed helpfully.

There is something in me that hates to ask for anything. Maybe it’s culture, maybe it’s shyness — in this case more probably my dislike of stuttering out a question in bad Italian. All the time I was looking for English books, I could sense that the owner of the shop was watching me, giving me time to ask for help, letting me browse to my heart’s content until I wanted to turn to her for assistance. Finally I bit the bullet and did it.  “English?” she replied in beaming Italian. “We have a whole shelf of English up there,” and she pointed to the top shelf which I had not been able to see. Then she went and got a ladder and placed it against the shelves. “Let me get them down for you!” she said. Before I knew it, the owner had carried down all the books in English and laid them on the floor for me to look over at my leisure. Not only had she answered my question, but she had gone above and beyond to help me find what I was seeking.

Isn’t God like that German lady? “Ask and you shall receive — give and it shall be given you, packed down and overflowing — what Father among you would give his son a stone if he asked for bread, or a snake if he asked for fish?” We look, we seek feverishly, while God beams over at us from the cash register. Once we humble ourselves and learn to ask of him, he lays himself out for us to receive him. As C.S Lewis said: “Prayer doesn’t change God — it changes me.”

Hope: An Advent Post

adventwreath3

As advent draws to its climax — the candles gradually being lit around the wreath at church, the snow flurries that remind us we are getting deeper into December — there comes to mind the words of the New England poet, Emily Dickenson:

“Hope is the thing with feathers
that perches on the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all . . .”

If there is one word that characterizes the advent season, it is hope. The more we wait, the more hope build up inside us like the gentle tune of the little bird in Dickenson’s poem. Many things might try to drown that voice out. Our own doubts and fears, our uncertainties and problems, even our comforts and our successes can tempt us to forget or ignore the small voice of hope which God places in our hearts. Yet, still, three weeks into Advent, it sings on:

“And sweetest in the gale is heard,
And sore must be the storm
That could upset this little bird
That kept so many warm.”

Hope, like the flame on an Advent candle, warms us from the secret chambers where God dwells. A tiny spark that spreads into every corner of our lives — that is hope. A gift from the Most High which can be given to all we meet — that is hope. A challenge to live every day to its fullest — a promise of grace in our most trying moments — a source of strength to the most weary, the most discouraged, the most abandoned — this is hope. And it IS a gift, like Faith and Love. It is given and never demands anything but acceptance from us:

“I’ve heard it on the farthest shore
And on the strangest sea —
But never — in extremity —
It asked a crumb — from me.”

This gift of quiet inner strength and of the warmth of God’s grace is Jesus’ gift to us this Christmas. It will not ask a crumb from us. Only gratitude. And we who live on the farthest shores and on the strangest seas . . . will we hear the tune? Will hope sing for us? For it is the secret joy hidden in every Christmas carol. Be ready — awake — the Lord is near!

I don’t believe in miracles – I depend on them

My mom had this little saying on the keychain of her van keys. I don’t know how many times we kids read it, as we rode in the front seat on our way to school or the dentist or to church. It was a quiet, simple message. Maybe we didn’t give it much thought then, but the sincerity and the simplicity of it strikes me now. Do we believe in miracles? And, more importantly, do we depend on them? Miracles, after all, seem to show up everywhere in the Catholic world. I remember coming across this enormous book titled Miracles in the Lives of the Saints, which was something like fifty-seven chapters about all kinds of saints experiencing all kinds of strange and wonderful occurrences. Visions, healings, and levitation were just a few. A few odd ones, like talking to animals (St. Francis, naturally) and bilocation (being in two places at once – something parents have perfected) have made me think that being a Catholic saint must be pretty exciting. I mean, don’t we have St. Anthony working overtime finding lost objects? Saints and miracles appear to go hand in hand. But are miracles really such a central part of being Christian, of following Jesus? Sometimes I think we can fall into two camps: either we don’t believe in miracles at all, or we try to look for them everywhere and make them the whole point of our faith. We can be incredulous or over-credulous. Jesus steers clear of either extreme in the Gospels. On the one hand, he not only believes in miracles, but he performs many – healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, and ultimately rising from the dead. On the other hand, he cautions his disciples about seeking after signs, and avoids the crowds who want to make him king simply because he multiplied the loaves and fishes. Jesus teaches us to seek God. Sometimes God does reveal himself in the miraculous, it’s true. So much more often, though, he comes to us in the quiet, in the ordinary, in the messy muddiness of our daily routine, and maybe those are the truly miraculous occasions. Can we depend on God to be there, too?

Profession — of Faith

Brother Joe prostrating during the Litany of the Saints

It’s good for the sun to be out. Aside from the banal reason that things tend to freeze over and die without the sun, it’s just good to have that boundless ball of energy alive in the sky. Life pours from the sun like water from a hydrant. It is the original source of blessing — the bright and blazing sign that earth receives all good things as a gift. Every society has honored the sun, given it a name, recognized the divine blessing it signifies.

The Egyptians worshiped the sun god Ra, bearer of life; the Greeks honored Apollo, driver of the sun’s golden chariot and giver of wisdom and culture; St. Francis praised Sir Brother Sun who was the image of the Most High. I’m not ancient Egyptian, but I am definitely Franciscan. To me, a bright sun in a clear sky witnesses the benevolence of God: “He who lets his sun shine on the good and the wicked . . .”

The sun was out for my Solemn Profession of vows. When I left the parking lot of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Derry, the sky was an ominous grey, but as my car neared Boston the yellow rays pushed persistently through. By the time we gathered in Waltham for the ceremony the good old orb was blazing away, doing its thing, cradling us and everything else in its life-giving fingers from ninety-three thousand miles away. A sign of blessings on a day of blessings.  It’s easy to imagine Francis of Assisi basking in the warmth of such a sun and praising the Lord for all His good gifts, all His blessings — especially the blessing of the gift of faith.

That image of Francis strikes me strongly as I think on my Profession day. It was, again, a day of blessings: beautiful sun, music (three choirs! gosh.), surrounded by family and friends and friars. There were nieces and nephews two-by-two, and a Noah’s ark of brown-robed Franciscans. And as we all celebrated this special moment, I thought back to the words of a friar from the day before: “Remember this is not just your day — it is our day. We all participate in this.” How true that is!  We all participate in whatever good which comes from each other’s life. God’s sun pours out its gifts to all. And what greater gift than faith to believe in the One who loves so indiscriminately, so vastly, so generously?

A Solemn Profession is more than a profession of vows. It is a profession of faith — and not by one person only, but by the whole community. We believe in

the Good God who gives us all that we have: life, family, friends, and all the rest of it. We believe that this God continues to bless us. We believe that He calls each of us forth, to belong to one another, and to bind ourselves to one another and to Him.

“Praise be You, My Lord, for all Your creatures, especially my Lord Sir Brother Sun, Who is the day through whom you give us light. And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor. Of You Most High, he bears the likeness.”