Monthly Archives: September 2011

Return to the heart

When it was night time in the soul of Israel, the exiles had only one recourse, according to the prophets: Return to the heart.

“Make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.” (Ezekiel 18:31)

“Remember this, return to your heart, remember things long past.” (Isaiah 46:8-9)

It’s a decision we all may have to make one day in our own crisis of spirit. “It is from the heart and the heart alone that life can begin again,” says People of God in the Night author Eloi LeClerc. “When everything is lost, the heart remains.”

What does it mean to return to the heart? To get in touch with our deepest being. To reawaken our truest self from our past life.

The process starts with realization of our utter dependence on God. We are stripped of all illusion that we are in control of our lives. Everything we are, everything we have, everything we achieve is through God. This may involve deep psychic pain, like the deportees from Judah—or an extended period of wandering, like the Israelites in the desert. Humbled and vulnerable, we begin to develop trust and rediscover hope.

We roll back our memories to a time of innocence, wonderment, and a yearning toward something greater. We open ourselves to the unknown. Our conscience awakens and we respond to God’s call with youthful fervor. Within our hearts, our deepest reality, we choose to follow where God leads and rediscover ourselves in the process.


Exile and the crisis of maturity

the biblical experience of exile is one of the most radical experiences that humanity has ever undergone.

People of God in the Night, by Eloi LeClerc, O.F.M.

Our summer assignment for Year 3 proved to be a slim little book with emotional impact. People of God in the Night introduces the theme of the exile experience from the point of view of those taken captive and living in Assyria. For generations they hold hope for their return to the Promised Land – until the southern kingdom is also defeated. The Babylonians not only forcibly remove leading citizens of Judah—anyone with the wealth or influence to mount resistance–they destroy the Temple in Jerusalem. Those in exile are shaken to their core. “All the stars have gone out at once. In their place, infinite emptiness.”

I looked to the earth, to see a formless waste; to the heavens and their light had gone. (Jer 4:23)

“No one can go through such distress without falling into a bottomless despair,” the author writes, “unless one encounters at the bottom of the abyss an indestructible hope.” With the exile, the faith of the people of God is broken down and rebuilt on a new foundation.

Our instructor, Jim McGill, compared the two formative experiences of Judaism, exodus and exile, to stages in one’s life.

The exodus, or the wandering in the wilderness, resembles the experience of adolescence or young adulthood. The outcome is uncertain, the experience may be traumatic, but there is great possibility ahead. Possibly even adventure. One is in the processing of learning or of becoming something. It’s a moment of discovery.

The exile experience he likened to maturity and a midlife crisis. Adults achieve a certain amount of security or status, and suddenly it all vanishes. There may be outside forces involved, but there are internal failures for which they must accept blame. The experience is frightening. It’s the great fear of those who no longer feel sure of anything. (Much as all Americans felt on September 11, 2001.)

This is the dark night of the Israelites in exile. Ultimately, however, they find God present even in their despair. What develops is the birth of faith as trust. They undergo a transformative experience.

As with Jacob’s epic struggle with an angel, however, the change comes at great cost. They walk away limping.

Year 3 begins …

Torah inside of the former Glockengasse synago...

Image via Wikipedia

We return to Old Testament for Year 3 of Catholic Biblical School. I’m excited by the addition of several new classmates, hailing from northeast Louisiana and Texarkana, Texas. My group includes two transfers from the Monroe/Ruston program and two locals entirely new to CBS. That should make for lively interaction within the group, which I love.

Our instructor again is Jim McGill, well-known to many in our diocese as he was an instructor at Greco Institute for a number of years. Again, he drives to Shreveport once a month from Dallas to lead our daylong Saturday sessions covering three separate lessons.

Having finished Years 1 and 2, Foundations of Old Testament and Foundations of New Testament, we qualify for University of Dallas certificates in Basic Biblical Studies.

Theme this year is Exile and Restoration. We will cover major and minor prophets, Lamentations, Chronicles, Ruth, Song of Solomon and Psalms. Frankly, I know very little about any of these books in the Bible, and I’m looking forward to making their acquaintance.

Already I’m beginning to sense the formative nature of the exile for Judaism – a powerful parallel to wandering in the wilderness.

Pray for the children …

I stayed in Czech Republic a few days to visit distant cousins. I was pleased to attend Sunday Mass with my third cousin Mary in a village church in the area where my great-great-grandfather lived. Many Czech churches are empty on Sundays. Atheism and agnosticism are quite high after decades of Soviet rule. But this church, dedicated to St. Wenceslaus, was almost full.

Afterward there was a Marian devotion at the side altar, pictured here. You can see only one of the three altar servers. Two were adults. One was a charming youngster who reminded me of the halo-askew “Littlest Angel.” He couldn’t have been more than 7 years old. His chasuble was two sizes too big at the neck and gapped to one side. His shock of light hair was mussed, partly standing straight up. He hadn’t a clue what to do but was enjoying the experience!

Pray for this boy and others like him. Three generations of young Czechs have grown up without a faith tradition. What a great irony that Neumann left the heavily Catholic Bohemia for missionary work in the United States. He’d finished seminary training but wasn’t ordained because there were too many priests in Bohemia. Today, his homeland is in greater need of missionary work than the U.S. … May we never take for granted our precious right to freedom of worship.

A bit of Redemptorist hospitality!

Bohemia is my father’s ancestral homeland. Both sets of his
grandparents left in the 1870s and settled in Nebraska. Here I am with kolaches like my grandmother used to make! The photo was taken at Svata Hora (Holy Mountain), a Marian shrine that has welcomed pilgrims since the 1500s.  It is now run by Redemptorists, the same missionary order St. John  Neumann and Blessed Francis  Seelos joined in the 1840s to serve immigrants in America.  In Munich and Gars am Inn in Germany, in Vienna, and here in Svata Hora, we were invited into the residence for some Redemptorist hospitality. If you’d like to know more about this part of my trip, please see my blog postings (“Where Saints Walked”) on the Redemptorist website. Here’s a link to the first:

(Photo courtesy of Cecilia Woodley)

An end and a beginning …

The Alpha and the Omega, in a portrait of St. John Neumann in his hometown of Prachatice, Bohemia, Czech Republic. I joined a Neumann Bicentennial Year Pilgrimage in May honoring Neumann and another Redemptorist, Blessed Francis Seelos, who died in New Orleans in 1867. We also visited the birthplace of Seelos in Bavaria (southern Germany) and cathedrals, basilicas and Marian shrines in Austria and Czech Republic. The portrait was done after Neumann was named bishop of the Diocese of Philadelphia. … Having just studied Revelation with its Alpha and Omega theme, I thought this was a fitting segue to Year 2 of Catholic Biblical School. Two more photos to come.

Q and A on Revelation

Finally, here are my answers to subjective questions asked on our assignments and test. Please share yours!

Why is the Book of Revelation so popular with fiction writers and religious groups? People want to be able to control God, creation, and their fate, especially in a complex and threatening world. They want to decode the numbers and symbols of Revelation so they can guarantee themselves a spot in heaven.

What’s the most important theme of Revelation? The world is the arena in which God’s plan for salvation unfolds. Human life is not a series of random events but a theater of divine activity.

What’s the most significant thing you learned? Revelation definitely gave me the sense of another dimension to life. As we carry out our lives, we are part of the cosmic struggle between good and evil. Angels and demons are fighting over us. God is active in today’s world, just as he was through the suffering history of Israel and the persecution of the early Christian Church. And I better understand as evil the seductiveness not just of power, prestige, and affluence, but of complacency.