Tag Archives: st mary’s

Reflection on the Parable of the Tenants

Here is the reflection I gave at St. Mary’s about a month ago, on the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, on Christ’s Parable of the Tenants (Matthew 21:33-46).

I almost didn’t have the heart to complete this reflection. After a 6-year journey with prostate cancer, my dad, Sanford, moved to hospice care in June and is near the end of his long goodbye with his wife Kathy, his family, his years of reading and thinking, and the birds that come to the feeder in his garden. A sudden death is a painful shock, but a slow death grinds us down: this loss erodes my strength, drains my hope, and isolates me from my usual gifts and comforts. My grief has more often felt crushing than illuminating. But, in praying on this gospel and writing this reflection, I re-learned a lesson that I’ve gotten over and over as a parent: it is comforting to give comfort. Seeking the soul-nourishing meaning I could uncover and share here in Christ’s parable nourished my own soul.

I re-read this week’s gospel on a sunny early morning in our neighborhood’s P-Patch: a community garden full of squash, greens, tomatoes, huckleberries, a beehive with a few last bees circling, and a sweet hanging smell of jasmine. It was easy, in that garden, to feel close to the love and labor of the prophet’s friend in Isaiah, or of the landowner in Christ’s parable: the P-Patch was busy but quiet, charged with its own inner life and eager for the care of its gardeners.

In one of my favorite books, Kathleen’s Norris’s memoir The Cloister Walk, a Benedictine nun tells the author that the “enemies” spoken of in the Psalms and the parables—the unbelievers and mockers and military foes who humiliate or overpower the psalmist; the “wretched men” in today’s parable—are best understood not as external enemies to vanquish, but as aspects of ourselves we must overcome. Hearing this relieved the troubled feeling I’ve often had at the harsh, and final, punishments the psalmist asks God for. The psalmist is speaking of an inner struggle.

This reframing also gave me a clearer understanding of today’s parable. In the beauty of the morning garden, I had no problem understanding the vineyard in Christ’s parable as our magnificent creation. This world is a free gift of God, and we’re called to be grateful stewards of this gift. But I see now that Christ is also speaking to us of our inner garden. Our humanity is also a free gift. As Father Armando said last week, we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having, for the duration of our lives, a human experience. How might we tend these spirits of ours if we believed this?—If we felt the incredible good fortune of receiving this magnificent inner garden to tend?

I don’t know about you, but I can identify with the “wretched men” of this parable. I’m often painfully aware of the wretched, possessive, fearful, jealous sides of my spirit: my love hesitates, my courage falters, my faith flows out under me like sand, my sense of solidarity shrivels.

I’m also wretchedly aware of all the ways I participate in what St. John Paul II called “structural sin”: how, by my silence and inaction, I too often consent to a society that pulls apart families based on immigration status; sells bombs to the world’s warlords; degrades and excludes women; robs the dignity of LGBTQ people for how they express their love, their gender, and their sexuality; riddles poor communities with opioid addiction, joblessness, and despair; and consigns young men of color to police violence and mass incarceration.

To work for justice in our relationships and in our society is to labor in the vineyard of God’s creation. But to do so is also to tend our inner vineyard. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a natural thing you find beautiful: a bed of jasmine, a field of undisturbed snow, a great blue heron, a sleeping cat, a clear forest stream. Now imagine that, in God’s eyes, each of our small acts of courage, tenderness, or solidarity are that beautiful. These are the fruits and blossoms of our inner garden, and God sees them and loves them and loves us for them. To cultivate these qualities in ourselves is to lead a more beautiful life. But it is also to say thank you to the first gardener, of whose work we are the stewards.


Leave a comment

Filed under spirit

Reflection for Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God (Jan 1)

Here’s the reflection I gave at St. Mary’s on New Year’s Day for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. 

In the course of my week, I feel closest to worship between about 5:30 and 7 in the morning. When I can get myself out of bed for it, this is my quiet time—the time before I wake Finn up and start the process of getting him to preschool and myself to work. I spend that quiet hour and a half at my desk with a cup of coffee, a little lamp, three prayer candles, and a glow-in-the-dark statue of Mary that my friend Alex gave me when we were both baptized.

With the candles lit, I offer my prayers and fears and hopes and longings for the day or the week, read a Psalm, sometimes write a poem, sometimes reflect in my journal on a sentence or two from the gospel. Then I wake Finn up, and my day starts. I like to believe that the fruits of this silent time are everywhere in the rest of my day: I notice that I’m less crabby, neurotic, and exhausted by dinnertime if I’ve taken the silence of the morning to draw myself closer to God and just quiet down.

Mary’s power and receptivity, her prophetic gift and the holy dignity she brings to our human body, are at the heart of my understanding of my faith. I’m obsessed by the Magnificat, her prophecy at the beginning of Luke; I’ve been trying to memorize it line by line on my morning commute, and I’m about halfway through. The fire and timeless beauty of those words burn my heart.

But in today’s gospel, I’m drawn not to Mary’s words, but to her silence. “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” What is it, I wonder, that Mary is keeping in her heart? We hear that all who heard the shepherds were amazed: I can only believe that Mary, too, was dumbfounded at the confirmation of the visit of the angel, at the suggestion that this tiny, quiet person swaddled in her lap would make real her own prophecy. This silence of her reflection continues long after the astounded shepherds go back to their flocks. How can we know what sort of thoughts must be turning over in her? How can any of us fathom the impossible gift of Christ to the world?

Today in Numbers, we heard the blessing: “The LORD let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you.” This blessing, it seems to me, is precisely what Mary assented to: the Lord shone upon her, in her “yes” to the angel, in taking on the bodily work of carrying the child of the Holy Spirit, in accepting a love and trust that will ultimately pierce her like a sword. And here it is, unbelievably, coming to pass nine months later.

In the Magnificat in the first chapter of Luke, Mary, pregnant with Jesus, instructs me with her prophecy of a world turned upside down—of God’s timeless fidelity and burning justice and disruption of all established hierarchies. But here in the second chapter of Luke, Mary, holding her astounding baby in her arms, instructs me not with her prophecy, but with her silence.

2016 was a devastating and heartbreaking year for me, and for many of us. As I enter 2017, I’m tending to my own grief. I’m looking for ways to make real the prophecy of the Magnificat—in serving the poor, in empowering those subject to state violence, in standing up for immigrants, in welcoming people persecuted for their faiths.

But in this first week of the year, I hope to also tend to my own silence. This silence can be my strength when I’m hopeless, and my rest when I’m overwhelmed. We live in a culture that values individual productivity, output, measureable results. So it’s easy for me to lose heart when I see the persistence of injustice and suffering and arrogant power. Is our work worth it, if we’re unable to cure the world of these things? But in silence, I feel the refreshment of knowing that it is God who is at work in our labor for justice, and God who completes what is out of our hands to complete. I hold Mary’s example in my heart as I keep time for awe and longing and gratitude for life, for the Spirit’s presence in both hardship and joy, for wondering—as I’m sure Mary must have wondered, on the first night of her son’s life—what this magnificent news of his birth could possibly mean.

Leave a comment

Filed under spirit