At the end of May I received a thank you card from one of the children in the Level 2 atrium (1st through 3rd graders) that I co-lead at St. Mark’s Catholic Community in Boise, Idaho. Inside Rosemary (age 7) had drawn me a picture of the sheepfold of the Good Shepherd with two lambs playing in green grass surrounded by a brown fence. Above the picture she’d written, with characteristic seven year-old effusiveness, “I love you Mrs. Katee [sic] you have been a good atrium teacher you are like the sheep that loves Jesus.”
I’ve been carrying her card around with me in the back pocket of my journal along with a few obituary prayer cards and a picture of a brass cross on a multi-colored rug of whose provenance I have no memory. I take it out sometimes and re-read it, and hope that I really am like the sheep that loves Jesus, each day, in each moment, no matter how exciting, mundane, hungry and tired, or full and ready for the next adventure I might be.
Within the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) the image of the shepherd carrying a sheep across his shoulders is present everywhere. Each Roman Catholic, Episcopalian and Protestant atrium contains a plaster copy of the Good Shepherd statue from the Domitilla Catacombs, so famous in Rome where CGS began. Orthodox atria pray with icons to depict the shepherd holding the sheep. The themes of the Parable of the Good Shepherd from John’s gospel are explored with children younger than two in the growing toddler atria (for 1 ½ to 3 year olds) all the way to the children in level 3 (4th through 6th graders). Of course, the parable does not end its influence on our lives as Christians when we reach the age of twelve, but continues to grow with us.
In their early work with children, Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi (the co-founders of CGS) believed that children were attracted to this parable because of the protection and safety the Good Shepherd offers to the sheep who (like children) are vulnerable and in need of care. Later they discovered, however, that the children in the level 1 atrium (for 3 to 6 year olds) did not focus primarily on the verses detailing the shepherd’s care for the sheep, but instead the relationship the sheep and the shepherd enjoyed illustrated by the verse, “He calls them by name.” This realization amazed the two women, because it demonstrates that the youngest child is capable of entering into relationship with God, into the Covenant relationship that is the foundation of our lives as Christians.
Within CGS the adults who serve in the atrium eschew the name of “teacher.” Instead, we strive to be “co-listeners” to the word of God with the children. While we offer some structure, boundaries, and help, for the most part CGS seeks to “follow the child” (as Maria Montessori, another Catholic, who provided the educational foundation for CGS would say). One of the ways we do this is by resisting the urge to “define” the parables for the children. We let the children discover on their own (sometimes over years of reading and interacting with the parable) who the Shepherd and the sheep are. Usually by the age of five a child will have proclaimed to us at some point within the atrium, usually with a measure of awe or a cry of complete joy, “I am a sheep!”
Maybe this is why Rosemary’s card has become so precious to me. Instead of telling me that I am like the Good Shepherd who cares for the sheep, Rosemary has placed me as one of the flock, just as I should be, a sheep along with her and all others, who seek to listen to the Good Shepherd’s voice and follow wherever he leads.
Of the many gifts of being a catechist, the one I relish the most is how much the children continue to teach me about God. Jesus said with all seriousness, “Unless you become like little children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). In order to follow this commandment we must enter into the mystery of childhood—whether it’s through paying attention to the children within our own lives, volunteering as catechists (if this is God’s call for us) or meditating on the spiritual richness that children offer to us within our church. As adults, when we settle into our identity as beloved members of the Good Shepherd’s flock, all the superfluous anxieties and distractions of life fall away. Children invite us to listen with new ears to the voice of the one who calls us to fullness of life.
Friday, March 30, 2018
|Icon Crucifix based on the San Damiano Cross |
by Deacon Charles Rohrbacher.
Currently on display at the Alaska State Museum.
It’s Good Friday morning in Juneau, Alaska. The sky is a clear baby blue with sun that glints off the piles of old snow heaped at the edges of parking lots and clinging to the grasses of the wetlands in front of my parents’ house. Today we’ll go to the Shrine of St. Therese for Stations of the Cross, out where it’s not uncommon to see whales breaching or hear the bellows of sea lions in the distance. It’s good to be home.
If I was in Boise, and it wasn’t Spring Break, I would be making my way down to the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist to meet with a small group of 3, 4 and 5 year-olds in their atrium. This is the first year for St. John’s to host an atrium, and it’s the first year since beginning Juneau’s Cathedral atrium in 2010 that I’ve had the opportunity to be part of building an atrium and to see it grow from the smallest seed to a thriving community of work and prayer.
It hasn’t all been smooth, but the bumps have been beautiful, too, in their own way. Most of the children entered into this new space with quiet curiosity. When we first made our way around the room, hands clasped behind our backs to make sure that we would “look only with our eyes,” I asked the children, “Did anyone see something particularly beautiful in our atrium?” One little girl silently walked over to the prayer table and pointed to the small, ceramic San Damiano Crucifix lying there. Since this moment, the cross has been the focal point of our atrium. At prayer time the children take turns silently holding it before passing it on to the next child. Sometimes the children will wander over and stroke it on their way from one work to another.
Of the children within the Friday morning group, one was not so certain about spending time in the atrium. For the first few weeks, Robert would only remain within the room if one of his parents stayed by his side. Gradually they moved farther and farther away, first sitting just outside the door, and then slowly taking places farther down the hall. Robert would choose a work rug and then one of the many practical life activities and position himself in the doorway, sometimes halfway in and halfway out, to work on sponging, cutting up small pieces of paper, or matching keys with locks where he could see his parents out of the corner of his eye.
Then one day in early February, Robert looked up from his place in the doorway and told me, “I want to go to the prayer table.” Kneeling together in front of the table, I lit the candle for him. “How would you like to pray?” I asked. Robert began listing the things he was thankful for: people, mom and dad, the church, the atrium . . . Then he paused and picked up the San Damiano cross, closed his eyes and clutched it tightly to his chest. After several seconds he passed it to me and gestured for me to do the same. Closing my eyes I pressed the cross over my own heart, holding it for a few moments before passing it back to Robert. We established a rhythm of prayer. Robert would take the cross, hug it tightly to himself, scrunch his eyes and smile and then pass it back to me. Each time his smile seemed to grow bigger. His arms wrapped tighter as if he was embracing the cross with all his strength. Finally, he let out a big sigh placed the cross back on the table and snuffed the prayer candle.
Every Friday since, Robert will at some point stop his work in the doorway and announce in a loud whisper, “I want to go to the prayer table!” My co-catechist, Emily, or I will accompany him to light the candle and pray with Robert. He leads the way, telling us what he is thankful for, letting us know which songs he wants to sing, and then, when the moment is just right, taking up the cross in his hands, embracing it and passing it to us. This last Friday, Robert kept his eyes closed as we reverenced the cross. He held it out to me and waited for my hands to take it from his, and then when I gently touched it to his shoulder when I was done, he would take it carefully back. His smile again growing wider and wider.
Today, during the Good Friday service we are all invited to reverence the cross of Christ. The gesture itself is left up to the believer, whether we touch the wood with our fingers, kneel before it or even bend to kiss this symbol of love conquering hate and life stronger than death. And I know that when it is my turn I will think of Robert, and if I dared I would wrap up the cross in a bear hug, eyes scrunched tight, smile growing wider and wider, amazed at the God of transformation who can take a vehicle of torture, pain and hatred, and turn it into pure love.
Yesterday, my teen daughters sat with a good friend and talked about the problems of the world. They are manifold, it’s true, but I wanted to show them what Robert’s shown me, love is greater, we just need to hang on tightly.
Sunday, December 31, 2017
In today’s Gospel for the feast of the Holy Family we hear of Mary and Joseph taking their child to the Temple in Jerusalem to consecrate him to the Lord.
I remember, almost exactly 13 years ago, my husband and I bringing our own newborn twin daughters to Mass for the first time. They were a little over a week old, and though the preparation of making sure all four of us were washed, dressed, and fed, took longer than expected, I couldn’t stop smiling as we tiptoed into a back pew while the first reading was being proclaimed with our tiny bundles. The pastor of our parish at the time, Fr. Tony, had a habit of asking the community before Mass, “Who has some Good News to share?” Though we’d missed the time for announcements, before he began his homily, Fr. Tony told the gathered community, “You’ll have to excuse me, our Good News has just arrived,” and walked to the back of the Church to bless our new little babies, before continuing on with the Mass.
Just like Mary and Joseph bringing their son to the Temple, in current Catholic practice there are also moments of intensity where we celebrate, consecrate, bless and give thanks for our children. Through the sacraments of belonging and thanksgiving—Baptism, 1st Communion, Confirmation and Reconciliation, parents and the entire believing community, consecrate children to God.
And in-between these moments of feasting, these mountaintop experiences are the day-to-day makings of a home. I find it interesting that in today’s Gospel reading, there is shortened form that can be read which only includes the first verse: “When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, they took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord”, and the last two verses: “When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”
While the presentation at the temple and the proclamations of Anna and Simeon are beautiful, it seems that these three verses, go straight to the heart of what this feast is about. The feast of the Holy Family reminds us again of the great mystery of the Incarnation—the ineffable God, Lord of Creation, became a human, became vulnerable in the ultimate vulnerability of a baby, toddler, and a child. He became a little one who relied upon the goodness, wisdom, faithfulness, and care of his mother and foster father to provide everything he needed for life—nourishment, shelter, clothing, love. Hidden away in Nazareth, Jesus grew the way all children do. He shared meals with his family and went to worship in the synagogue with them. Though we have no record in the Bible of these years in Nazareth before Jesus turned 12 and was lost in the very Temple he was consecrated in—we can imagine the Holy Family was not always calm and pristine. Mary’s days weren’t taken up with needlepoint, rosaries, and hours of quiet contemplation. She worshipped the divine by washing his clothes, hand kneading his daily bread, and reminding him to wash his hands before dinner.
The Holy Family was not holy because they lived in peace and tranquility. They are holy because they faced the adversity of everyday life and cataclysmic events with faith, hope and love. They are holy like the Syrian refugee mothers who seek to give their children a chance at life in a strange land. Like the fathers who go out and look for work—anything to feed their families in a place that looks on them with suspicion. They Holy Family is holy, too, because all families are holy—created in the image of God.
And so following the example of the Holy family, let’s not wait until everyone’s perfect to claim our holiness. Not to put off recognizing our essential holiness until the baby sleeps through the night and we’re all well rested, or until we can afford the house of our dreams, or until everyone’s out of diapers, or out of eye-rolling. Because that misses the point: we are holy now.
When I was a teenager I took a hike up to a mountaintop in Juneau, with my great-Aunt Mary Thibodeau a Sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. An exuberant person her whole life long, when we reached the summit, Aunt Mary spread out her arms to the blue sky and sang Jean Val Jean’s line from Les Miserables: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
Whether you are the parent of young children or grown children, whether you are living alone or in community—the feast of the holy family lifts up for each of us a message of comfort and of challenge: there is holiness in the ordinary minutiae of everyday life. Each encounter with another is a privileged meeting place with the divine, and a reminder that we all belong to the Holy Family.
Thursday, December 14, 2017
My grandmother, Elaine Viola Beedle, passed away peacefully on November 15, 2017, surrounded by family members. At her funeral, on December 5th, I was privileged to offer a part of the eulogy for this amazing woman. Here's what I said:
Grandma was a planner and it seemed she wanted to make sure that everything was exactly so before she passed away. The past several years Grandma gathered together different writings: poems, prayers and scriptures to be used for when she died. Sometimes I think of the things we do, preparing a prayer card or planning the rosary and funeral Mass, as a love letter we write for the person who has passed away. But, as she did in so many things, Grandma turned this tradition around, and wrote a love letter to us, in the songs, prayers, and readings she so lovingly chose for last night and today. She even left several examples of thank you cards for her family to send out to all the people who have treated us with such care and kindness during this time. Today we hear Grandma’s voice again, strong and clear lifted in song, reading the words of the Bible, praying the prayers she loved and lived so deeply.
Last June I went to visit Grandma at home. She kept asking me if I had read a recent article in the Southeast Alaska Catholic, our diocesan newspaper, written by Fr. Ron Rolheiser. I told her I hadn’t. She was insistent about how good it was but couldn’t find the words to say more. Eventually Aunt Janet produced the paper and I read the article aloud for all three of us to listen to. In it, Fr. Rolheiser talks about the death of his sister many years earlier from cancer. She was leaving behind a large family and shortly before her death she told Fr. Rolheiser what he should say at her funeral. The gospel she had chosen was the one from John where Jesus tells the disciples at the Last Supper “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places . . . I am going to prepare a place for you.” Fr. Rolheiser wrote in the article,
[My sister] shared how before every one of her children was born, before she went to the hospital to give birth, she had carefully prepared everything at home for the new arrival, the crib, the diapers, the clothing, the room. She brought each of her children home to a place she had carefully prepared. And now she was going on ahead of them again, to prepare another place for them.
When I finished reading the article, grandma sat back in her rocking chair, closed her eyes and said, “Yes! That’s exactly right.”
Throughout her life Grandma prepared so much for us: family dinners, Christmas fudge, Easter eggs. We remember all of these actions of love with gratitude, but even more we remember how she herself was prepared to greet us, whether we were dropping by unexpectedly or responding to an invitation, her arms were open wide, her face lit up with joy. We all secretly thought we were her favorite.
Grandma showed us how to live with purpose, love and thanksgiving. And she wanted us to know her work is not done yet. She’s still praying for us, loving us and preparing with Jesus, Mary and all the saints and angels a special place for us when it is our turn to be called home. She waits expectantly for the time we will be gathered around one table again. When our joy will be complete and the feast will never end.
Sunday, November 15, 2015
Thanks to Pastor Tari Stage-Harvey for inviting me to preach at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church today. And thank you to the wonderful people of Shepherd of the Valley for welcoming me to your worship and graciously laughing at my "pope joke." It was a blessing to be with you.
"As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, 'Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!' Then Jesus asked him, 'Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.' When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 'Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?' Then Jesus said to them, 'Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, "I am he!" and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.'"
(Mark 13:1-8 )
This is a hard gospel. It’s not comforting. At least not at first glance. When Pastor Tari first asked me to preach, I didn’t know this was the gospel. You see, on most Sundays the lectionary of the Lutherans and the lectionary of the Catholics line, up . . . but not today. Looking for inspiration on what to preach on, I turned to the source every Catholic preacher looks to when asked to preach to Lutherans . . . the Pope. And I found a quote from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI saying this is one of the hardest gospels to preach on . . . ever. Lucky me.
This moment in the gospel takes place only a few days before Jesus will be arrested and eventually crucified. He’s arrived in Jerusalem with his disciples for the feast of the Passover. He spends the first three days of the week visiting the Temple, cleansing it, and preaching in it. The nights he spends with his disciples on the Mount of Olives. And so today, their third day in Jerusalem, as Jesus and his the disciples are leaving the Temple, one of them says to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Jesus responds with a chilling prophecy, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
This exchange frightens the disciples, and so later on, Peter, James, John and Andrew come to Jesus privately to ask him “when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are to be accomplished?” What follows is a long discourse, the very beginning of which we hear in today’s gospel. In this discourse Jesus speaks of wars, earthquakes, and famines, he speaks of persecution for his followers, and of a great tribulation to terrible to even imagine, and finally he ends with the image of the coming of the Son of Man.
It’s not until 28 verses after the four disciples asked their initial question, “when will this happen?” Jesus finally answers. Near the end of the 13th chapter of Mark, he says, “But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” It seems a little anti-climatic after everything Jesus has revealed, to come to the end and have the answer be, “No one knows.”
But perhaps this is because the disciples are asking the wrong question to begin with. They want to be prepared for the moment when “not one stone will be left upon another and all will be thrown down.” They want practical answers: “Tell us, when will this be and what will be the sign that these things are about to be accomplished?” It’s almost like they want Jesus to say—in ten years, on Friday, December 17th at 7am this will occur--clear out of Jerusalem before then. But the disciples [like us, when we strive for literal meanings and definite answers—when we try to box in the Word of God to palatable bite size portions] we miss the point entirely. The point is not when or where, but how and who . . .
And this is the crux of the gospel—of the Good News: as Christians we hold on to the sure hope that history is going somewhere. We are not going round and round in a chaotic, meaningless cycle. We are going towards the time when God will be all in all as St. Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians. We are going towards the time of the fullness of the Kingdom of God.
No one image, no one word or metaphor is enough to contain this Kingdom, which is for us and among us and yet also ultimately beyond us.
Jesus tells us the kingdom is like a mustard seed—the tiniest seed that grows to be a magnificent shrub that can house all the birds of the air. The Kingdom of God is like a precious pearl which a merchant—with joy and gladness—gives all he owns to possess. The Kingdom of God is like a wedding feast to which all are invited.
When Jesus walked in the Land of Israel he not only spoke the Kingdom, he also acted the kingdom. And wherever he was the Kingdom broke out—the lame walked, the blind were given back their sight, the lepers were healed, the hungry were fed.
We trust and believe in this radical, beautiful, incomprehensible promise of God being all in all; of the fullness of the Kingdom of God. But we don’t know exactly how and we don’t know exactly when this will come about.
I find it interesting and fitting that Jesus uses the imagery of “birth pangs” at the end of this Gospel. I have gone through “birth pangs” personally two times and accompanied women and their partners through birth as a doula several more. There is nothing like laboring to bring a child into the world: the expectancy, the hope, the excitement, the joy, and also the pain, and the grit and determination required. Birth is not easy, but bringing something to birth is powerful, beautiful and hopeful. And this is the image Jesus gives us for the establishment of the Kingdom of God—it is a birthing.
The question the disciples, ask, “When will this occur?” Is the wrong question. There is no when, because the time to birth the kingdom is now. We might ask, “What is it that God is bringing to birth in us, in our communities, in our world? Where is the Kingdom striving to be born and how may we help and encourage that birth?
In the birthing process there is a moment called “transition.” It’s often the most difficult time for a laboring mother—the time when you’re most likely to grab your husband, the nurse, the doctor, or all three at once and say, “I’m done! Make this stop!” This is the moment of truth, when the powers of birth are so strong that the woman must give into them, let go of control and let whatever happens, happen. This moment of truth is one of trust and surrender at the same time.
I think Jesus, on the cross has his own moment of “transition.” When he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” This is the very beginning of Psalm 22. And in reading through Psalm 22 we find the image of God the midwife. The psalmist proclaims: "it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother's breast" (Psalm 22:9). After reciting the beginning of this psalm, Jesus breathes his last and surrenders to death—a death that will bring about the ultimate new life. This is the pattern of life we as Christians mold ourselves to—dying and rising; labor pains and birth. It is not always easy. It is not always comforting. But it is good.
Around us and within us we can see the birth pangs of the Kingdom. Let us pray to God with hope, trust and surrender, “Great Midwife, bring the Kingdom to birth in me. Let your Kingdom come.”