I’m up in NY this weekend for a family funeral. It’s an unusual thing, being away from the parish on a Sunday, but the “unusualness” of it gives me a chance to look at things through fresh eyes of faith.
I could wax theological on the power of funerals to make saints. I could opine on the comforts afforded by the funeral rites to those of us who remain… but I’m not going to. It’s the early hours of Sunday morning and my parents’ packed house is, for the moment, still quiet. I’m home from DC, my sister and her husband have trekked north from the Carolinas, and my younger brother has dug his way south from Boston. Likewise in our extended family – many have made long journeys back to New York for tomorrow’s rites. Jammed together in close quarters again, whether it’s here at home or at the funeral parlor, what strikes me is this: We “get” each other. There’s no other group of people in the world who will ever “get” you like a loving family. The jokes make sense… the same old stories repeated for the thousandth time land with surprising comfort on the ear… There’s no need for background explanations in conversations. And perhaps best of all, you can hug each other unreservedly. Think of it: for all our friendly, fashionable embraces in DC (on sidewalks, at happy hours at office retirement parties)… all of them are so circumscribed by official, professional or social boundaries. That’s not to belittle those boundaries, but when you’re with family your embrace is all of “you” freely given, freely received. And there’s something really wonderful about trusting 100% of yourself to another person and knowing that it will be freely and fully received.
We have a lot of young adults in DC. We take great joy in our social scene and how “comfortable” we’ve become in a city where casual-fine-dining is the latest thing. Walking around downtown I notice a surprising number of smiles and laughs exchanged even among strangers. Laudable as all that is, is it family? Are our relationships marked by the “100%” nature of family? Would my circle of friends be there for me around my death bed? I’ve been privileged to know circles of friends who really have been family to each other. A dear old man I knew was single his whole life and found family among our college Knights of Columbus… He became like a father to the guys, and they became as sons to him. At his funeral, half the Church was grandees of the scientific community (there was even a British knight on hand), the other was all under the age of 25… impressive to say the least, but probably an exception to the rule. With each passing year, young adult Washingtonians become “less young” adult Washingtonians (myself included). Where does family fit in to our picture? It’s a worthy question to approach through eyes of faith. Meanwhile, I smell pancakes downstairs!
The holy season of Lent begins this Wednesday. All over Washington, in federal offices, universities, hospitals, parks, everywhere you’ll spy Catholics walking around with ashes to mark their renewed work at self-denial and self-gift for the sake of Christ. The ashes are an odd thing to see, but often a very positive one. If nothing else, they’re a great conversation starter! People start talking about faith at work… shock of shocks! If you find yourself getting into such a water cooler conversation you might find the following reflection on this Sunday’s second reading a useful way of summing up the season for your fellow Washingtonians.
“Whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” The coming season of lent is about precisely this… it’s about our yearly pilgrimage, our yearly return to doing everything for the glory of God. But what is the glory of God… it’s a phrase we throw around alot, but what does it mean? St. Paul gives us some clues. The glory of God is about seeking not my good, but the good of the many. Self-gift for the sake of others. Hence, in a focused way during Lent, we follow the Lord’s command to give alms to the poor… as a symbol of the larger self-gift that characterizes all our acts of service, mercy, and kindness. Seek the benefit of the many that they may be saved. The glory of God always has a heavenly orientation. Our Father desires us to be with him in heaven, we need to turn our full selves, we need to convert (to turn) the whole orientation of our lives toward the next world. That’s why during Lent we follow the Lord’s command to fast and abstain from the good things of this world… to remind ourselves neither the pains nor the pleasures of this world matter compared to the good that we seek in heaven. Be imitators of me as I am of Chirst. Christ is the only man ever to go body and soul to heaven… and it is only by joining ourselves to him that we can hope to find heaven. Thus, be imitators of Christ… be Christian’s… Be “other Christs” in the world, for the world. This is why we follow the Lord’s Lenten command to pray… so that our hearts can speak and become one with the heart of the Son himself, Jesus Christ.
Do everything for the Glory of God – be a gift to others, turn toward heaven, be Christ for the world. Only one thing stands in the way of this – sin. We all sin… If we want to do everything for the glory of God, we need to get out from under our sins brothers and sisters… Ironically, sins are self-imposed weights around our necks, but we are incapable of letting go of them on our own… it takes a higher power to let us know that we are truly forgiven… that these sad choices are truly relegated to the past. If we want to do everything for the glory of God, we need to take advantage of the sacrament of Confession.
Brothers and sisters, Lent can be such a beautiful time of new beginning… It’s a time when we focus on the fact that our Father delights in us… and we do everything we can to free ourselves from this world’s cares in order to fully enjoy that delight. A pilgrimage through the desert, yes… but ultimately a pilgrimage toward paradise!
Continuing a recent theme… Thursda was a day full of light and warmth. No I’m not writing from vacation in Jamaica. Even in the depth of winter I had an amazingly “warm” day through two encounters. In the morning, I joined friends for a visit to the National Gallery. We enjoyed lunch at the museum’s Garden Cafe, which – P.S. – has a reliably quality buffet for a reasonable price before enjoying the NGA’s newest exhibit: Piero di Cosimo: Painting in Renaissance Florence. Cosimo’s works are typical of the time: numerous religious themes, fidelity to the Florentine school. Unusual was the imaginative style with which he explored stories of pagan mythology, whose subjects he portrays in a wide range of characterizations from the beautifully sympathetic to the grotesque. I’m not a huge fan of Olympian mythology, but it was fun to walk around inside the imagination of such an original artist.
Yesterday’s second experience, also with a brother priest, was a visit to the Music Center at Strathmore to hear the BSO. Under the baton of Marin Alsop, the BSO is always in good form, but they were especially so last night, the tenth anniversary of the opening of their Montgomery County venue, Strathmore. The orchestra presented excited listeners with Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano concerto and Respighi’s Roman Tryptic. Both played at the heartstrings of the audience.
Three levels of light pervaded the day. Most superficially, the sun itself. DC was its usual beautiful self under low-lying winter sun light. In the middle of February that should be enough to lift anyone’s spirit, but there was other light too. Piero di Cosimo’s canvases seem to radiate the light of sacred realities portrayed. It was almost as if the gallery’s track-lighting wasn’t necessary. Likewise, the BSO’s performance of Respighi. I was transported back to warm walks along the Janiculum Hill, admiring the Pines and fountains for which Rome is so famous.
So there’s the external sunlight of the present and an artistic light from the past… The last level of light I experienced was the light of friends… and unlike the first two, this illumination is internal. Beautiful friendships illumine us from within helping us to discover different parts of ourselves, helping us to heal parts of ourselves, and also helping us to celebrate parts of ourselves. Maybe that’s why in darker times of year, the light of the local pub is so welcoming: it presages the joy of friendship within. Looking at your DC experience with eyes of faith, where are your light sources, and what characterizes them?
Where do I find light in my life? To what degree is that light satisfying? How do I chase after illumination with ever greater conviction?
“The spiritual man who has been thus illumined does not limp or leave the path, but bears all things. Glimpsing our true country from afar, he puts up with advertises; he is not saddened by the things of time, but finds his strength in God. He lowers his pride and endures possessing patience through humility. That true light which enlightens every man who comes into the world bestows itself on those who reverence it, shining where it wills, on whom it wills and revealing itself according to the will of God the Son.” -John the Serene, Bishop
There’s been significant chatter lately about “pop-ups” in DC; townhouses that have been expanded upward to increase square footage available for rent/sale. Opinions about these outgrowths of contemporary architecture are divided. Of course they raise an ever present question in our fair metropolis: what to do about the height restrictions?
Compared to most major American cities, Washington is relatively low-rise. This limits the number of people who can live, work …and pay taxes… in the city. Popular legend tells us that no building may be higher than the statue of Freedom over the Capitol Dome. That’s not entirely true. Most buildings in Washington are actually limited by a ratio between their height and the width of the street on which they’re built. Consequently, broad avenues have taller structures than more narrow side streets. The goal of the restrictions: “Let there be light!”
I love DC’s short stature. Structures exist on a human scale. Residents can enjoy the clear light of day shining in blue skies. …and if the humility of our local buildings exalts the dignity of our national Capitol, well that’s not such a bad thing either.
As someone who’s lived in both New York and Washington, I can tell you that having access to natural light and the blue sky in DC has a significant effect on my day. It does more than lift my spirits. It contextualizes my city experience. In New York, sky scraper canyons dominate and contain citizens. In Washington, the presence of light and greenery integrally woven into our street-experience connects the city to a wider world that serves man rather than oppressing him.
Light forms a huge part of Catholic spirituality. Jesus is himself described as the light of the human race (Jn. 1:4-ff). Likewise, Catholics are called on to be the light of the world (Mt 5:14). Cities should be places of light; the light of art, music, learning and bright smiles exchanged between citizens. It’s a complex thing to increase that light, but a good place to begin might be the presence of the sun gracing SHORT buildings, filling our streets and daily experiences.