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This series of daily reflections began during Lent, some fifteen years ago, in a small parish in an industrial area of the northwestern Midlands of England. The people of that parish were looking for ways to deepen their spiritual life, and they asked me to write a few reflections on the lectionary readings for the weeks leading up to Easter. These reflections appeared as a series of weekly leaflets available to anyone who wanted to take one. I called them “Potter’s Clay” because the parish was in that part of England that is home to the ceramics industry and is commonly called the Potteries.
I could not have guessed then that this small and very local Lenten journey would continue not just beyond Easter but also through many years to come—and that it would cross the Atlantic in 2001 to appear under the title A Book of Grace-Filled Days. I am delighted to be able to rejoin the book’s journey now, on the tenth anniversary of its first beginnings in the United States.
There is an ancient practice of scriptural meditation known as lectio divina. In the past, when very few people could read, it was common for monks to gather for morning meditation and simply listen in prayerful silence, as one among them who was able to do so would read the Scripture for the day. That monk would read slowly and reflectively while the others listened, and whenever each of them felt that a particular word or phrase or image was especially potent for him that day, he would leave the chapel and go to his cell to meditate on whatever had captured his imagination. He would chew it over in his heart and in his mind until he felt he had found what it was that God was saying to him that morning through what he had heard. The process could be compared to sucking on a sweet until all the flavor has been extracted. The reader would continue to keep reading and rereading the Scriptures until there was no one left in the chapel.
Today we live in a very different world from that of these ancient monks, but lectio divina is still a very powerful form of scriptural prayer and is practiced by many Christians on a regular basis. It is the way A Book of Grace-Filled Days has been written. I begin by reading the daily texts from the lectionary and simply noticing what in particular seems to spring to life for me as I do so. That nugget then becomes the basis for my reflection.
Sometimes the readings seem to draw me to reflect on things that are happening in my own life or in the wider world. Sometimes they open up new ways of “finding God in all things”—as St. Ignatius of Loyola would say—in the daily journey of life. Always they lead more deeply into the sacred texts. And the strange and wonderful thing is that when we seek to get inside Scripture in this or any other way, what actually happens is the opposite. It is Scripture that gets inside us, shaping us, forming us, challenging us, and sometimes flattening us and beginning all over again to re-create us—a bit like clay on the potter’s wheel.
Most of us don’t begin our days in chapel listening to the lectionary readings but in the tumult of family life, in the challenges of the workplace, or in the loneliness of an empty room far from our loved ones. Nor do we continue our reflections in a quiet monastic cell but on the highway, in the classroom, on the factory floor, or on the streets. None of this should prevent us from adapting the process of lectio divina to our twenty-first-century lives. If you take an extract from the daily readings as the starting point for your prayer each day, notice what seems to speak to you especially, and keep bringing that phrase or image or thought to mind as you go through your day whenever you have a moment—perhaps during your coffee break, in the shower, in traffic—then you are practicing lectio divina.
I hope that this year’s reflections will help you make your own journey of scriptural meditation as the days go by. Perhaps you are a seasoned traveler who has journeyed with the series since its first inception. Perhaps this is your first introduction to the possibility of daily scriptural reflection. Either way, welcome to the journey of a year that can become the journey of a lifetime, and may every day of 2011 be full of grace.
• First Sunday of Advent •
So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.
A recorded message: “Sorry I was out when you called. Please leave your name and number.”
Will this be my response to the touch of God upon my life? To that totally unexpected moment when I know beyond doubt that God is and that God is in touch with me?
God doesn’t leave messages; God speaks to the heart. May we keep our lines open 24/7.
On that day,
The branch of the Lord will be luster and glory,
and the fruit of the earth will be honor and splendor
for the survivors of Israel.
After the long winter months, the prophet Isaiah speaks of an amazing springtime. Then the trees of the forest that have withstood the frosts and gales will begin to reveal what they truly are. What will be the blossoms and fruits of human life on this planet? Dare we trust this promise that, in God’s hands, the fruits will be beauty and glory, reflecting the image of the Creator, and that the darkest hours we experience are truly cultivating God’s springtime?
• St. Andrew, Apostle •
As Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him.
Jesus calls these men to become fishers of men because they are already fishers of fish. He calls them to move to a deeper engagement with the gifts and experience they already have. As always, he draws our attention to the real world and circumstances in which we live and work, and he shows us how those circumstances might reflect the glory of God, if we will only follow and trust. We are not all fishermen. What gifts and experience is Jesus calling forth in you? How will you respond?
[Jesus] ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground. Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, gave thanks, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds. They all ate and were satisfied. They picked up the fragments left over—seven baskets full.
What we, in the affluent nations, waste might fill the tables of the poor seven times over, but it will take a miracle to make us see this and act upon it.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
At a Quaker meeting a visitor breaks the silence to ask his neighbor, “When does the service begin?”
The reply: “As soon as the worship finishes.”
Matthew 7:21, 24–27
• St. Francis Xavier, Priest •
On that day the deaf shall hear
the words of a book;
And out of gloom and darkness,
the eyes of the blind shall see.
When my ears are deafened by the clamor of the world’s distractions, and my eyes are dazzled by its fleeting attractions, God’s promise breaks through: “I will open the ears and the eyes of your heart.”
• St. John of Damascus, Priest and Doctor of the Church •
The light of the moon will be like that of the sun
and the light of the sun will be seven times greater
like the light of seven days.
On the day the Lord binds up the wounds of his people,
he will heal the bruises left by his blows.
In the night of our fears and sorrows, we grope our way through life by the meager candlelight of our wavering faith. But slowly, gradually, those lights are leading us into a new dawn that will outshine them all.
Isaiah 30:19–21, 23–26
Matthew 9:35—10:1, 5a, 6–8
• Second Sunday of Advent •
There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord,
as water covers the sea.
If I truly could know my enemies, I would understand them. If I truly could understand them, I would be able to forgive them. And if I can forgive them, I can no longer cause them harm. The tide of God’s love will wash clean the messy shoreline of my heart.
Kindness and truth shall meet;
justice and peace shall kiss.
Truth will spring out of the earth,
and justice shall look down from heaven.
The coming of God’s reign is not so much about obeying a command as it is about surrendering to an embrace. In that embrace, miracles happen.
• St. Ambrose, Bishop and Doctor of the Church •
A voice cries out:
In the desert prepare the way of the Lord!
Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!
I have my own ideas about where God’s highway should be routed in my life: it should take in all the best bits and my achievements and successes. God has other ideas. God’s way leads right into and through my wilderness, my mess, my chaos and my failures.
• The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary •
And the angel said to her in reply, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”
In God the inconceivable becomes a reality, but only if we are willing to allow our shallow ego-selves to be eclipsed by the overshadowing mystery of the Holy Spirit, in whose power all things are possible. May the grace of this Holy Spirit overshadow all our world’s strivings, so that we might truly become the holy people God created us to be.
Genesis 3:9–15, 20
Ephesians 1:3–6, 11–12
• St. Juan Diego, Hermit •
I am the Lord, your God,
who grasp your right hand;
It is I who say to you, “Fear not,
I will help you.”
When I am floundering on the mountainside of life, I don’t need a map or a guidebook. I need someone who takes me by the hand, guides me through the rocks and gullies, and gives me the courage to keep walking.
Thus says the Lord, your redeemer,
the Holy One of Israel:
I, the Lord, your God,
teach you what is for your good,
and lead you on the way you should go.
There will be many others who claim to lead us, and often they will wear the disguise of authority. May we have the grace of a discerning heart to know what is of God and what is not.
I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him but did to him whatever they pleased. So also will the Son of Man suffer at their hands.
The voice of prophecy is alive in the twenty-first century, warning us that God is present in the ones we mistreat.
Can we recognize it? Dare we hear it?
How will we respond?
Sirach 48:1–4, 9–11
Matthew 17:9a, 10–13
• Third Sunday of Advent • Our Lady of Guadalupe •
The Lord gives sight to the blind;
the Lord raises up those who are bowed down.
The Lord loves the just;
the Lord protects strangers.
The teacher who helps a child solve a problem;
the teenager who stops to share a word and a sandwich with a homeless person;
the activist who insists on justice for the asylum seeker;
the neighbor who looks out for the latchkey kids on the block—
they are all reflecting the glory of the Lord.
Isaiah 35:1–6, 10
• St. Lucy, Virgin and Martyr •
I see him, though not now;
I behold him, though not near:
A star shall advance from Jacob,
and a staff shall rise from Israel.
The writer and Nobel Prize winner André Gide reminds us that “ideals are like stars: we can never reach them, but we can use them to help us plot our course.” The star from Jacob will be forever beyond our reach, yet it will dwell within us always, guidin our every step.
Numbers 24:2–7; 15–17
• St. John of the Cross, Priest and Doctor of the Church •
I will leave as a remnant in your midst
a people humble and lowly,
Who shall take refuge in the name of the Lord.
Even when we feel that hardly anyone is left who knows or loves God, who reaches out to the suffering or speaks out for justice—even then, God is nurturing a core of faithfulness and love. Do we believe this? Will we look for it?
Zephaniah 3:1–2, 9–13
Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.
How do we keep the faith? Not so much, it seems, by assenting to a set of doctrines but rather by living the way Jesus lived, doing the things Jesus did, and trusting the Father whom Jesus trusted.
Isaiah 45:6–8, 18, 21–25
Enlarge the space for your tent,
spread out your tent cloths unsparingly;
lengthen your ropes and make firm your stakes.
When we expand our hearts and minds as the prophet Isaiah urges us to do, we will find that our world includes many people who previously have been excluded.
Jesus’ tent knew no limits. It welcomed everyone, especially those whom the “system” excluded.
In him shall all the tribes of the earth be blessed;
all the nations shall proclaim his happiness.
As we approach the Christmas season, let us take just a moment today to listen to the sound of perfect harmony. It needs two voices. The first voice is that of God, who from the very beginning has poured forth blessing on all the peoples of the earth and will never cease to do so. The second voice is that of God’s creation, echoing the blessing by living in loving relationship with one another and with God. This may sound like a distant dream, but in fact the music of blessing begins right now and right here, every time we set aside our narrow tribalism and relate to one another with love.
Genesis 49:2, 8–10
Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord,
when I will raise up a righteous shoot to David;
As king he shall reign and govern wisely,
he shall do what is just and right in the land.
That shoot will becom
e the root of everything humanity can become, and that root will bear branches, and those branches will bear fruit: the fruit of honesty and integrity.
Each of us is called to be a branch.
• Fourth Sunday of Advent •
The virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.
Emmanuel means “God-with-us”: not some distant dream,
but a statement of fact that is always true. We could never have grasped this truth until we saw the reality of it, lying in a manger.
Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.
Susan often thought back over her long life as she sat, lonely and forgotten, in the nursing home, day after tedious day. What point has there been in all of it? she wondered. Her days had been fruitless, meaningless. Her life had made no difference.
Then a letter came from a former pupil, thanking Susan for all she had meant to him. Just a sheet of paper—but a spark of life, direct from God, redeeming her barrenness, setting her heart alight with meaning and significance.
• St. Peter Canisius, Priest and Doctor of the Church •
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth [was] filled with the Holy Spirit.
God’s call, however faintly we may perceive it, quivers through our being with a joy and an insistence that shakes us into life.
Take time to remember when you have felt the quiver of God’s touch on your life.
Song of Songs 2:8–14 or Zephaniah 3:14–18
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
God’s justice turns our systems upside down.
God’s integrity turns our values inside out.
1 Samuel 1:24–28
1 Samuel 2:1, 4–8
• St. John of Kanty, Priest •
[The father] asked for a tablet and wrote, “John is his name,” and all were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God.
When I do what I know in my heart I must do, then my life will speak its own truth.
Malachi 3:1–4, 23–24
You, my child, shall be called prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.
Every day of every life is a call to make choices and decisions that help to prepare the way of the Lord. Every choice to do the more loving thing is a paving stone on that way.
2 Samuel 7:1–5, 8–12, 14, 16
• The Nativity of the Lord • Christmas •
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom
a light has shone.
Dazzled by the false lights of our own imagined glory, we stumble and fall because in truth our own light is darkness. But we find the true light in the darkness of God’s mystery is where the true light is to be found.
Acts 13:16–17, 22–25
Matthew 1:1–25 or 1:18–25
John 1:1–18 or 1:1–5, 9–14
• The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph •
When the magi had departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.” . . . When Herod had died, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.”
—Matthew 2:13, 19–20
Sometimes the slenderest of dreams is all that separates the path of destruction from the path of life.
Which of our dreams are of God? Which dreams shall we trust?
Sirach 3:2–7, 12–14
Colossians 3:12–21 or 3:12–17
Matthew 2:13–15, 19–23
• St. John, Apostle and Evangelist •
What was from the beginning,
what we have heard,
what we have seen with our eyes,
what we looked upon
and touched with our hands
concerns the Word of life.
—1 John 1:1
The eternal Word is not some abstraction of philosophy or theology. It is something we can see and observe in action, something we can touch with our own hands. It lies all around us, in the vulnerable lives of our brothers and sisters and in the fragile beauty of a living planet. Its echo resounds in our own words. Its power has chosen to reside in our shaky hands.
1 John 1:1–4
• The Holy Innocents, Martyrs •
A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation:
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more.
And still the heart-rending lament of a million Rachels fills the airwaves and the newspapers. Dare we let it pierce our hearts? Or will we collude with the systems of destruction? It seems that we must decide, one way or the other; there is no fence to sit on.
1 John 1:5—2:2
• St. Thomas Becket, Bishop and Martyr •
I do write a new commandment to you,
which holds true in him and among you,
for the darkness is passing away,
and the true light is already shining.
—1 John 2:8
The light of the nations has also kindled a little candle flame in our own lives. It will guide us through whatever lies ahead. It will never be extinguished. We can follow the commandment to love and to live in peace, because we know that God is fulfilling God’s promise in our lives.
1 John 2:3–11
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.
We, too, are called to grow toward the fullness of everything God knows we can become. The place where this quiet growth will happen is back in Galilee, in the circumstances and situations of everyday life, in the deep recesses of our own hearts, and in the way we choose to live each moment.
1 John 2:12–17
Sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all you lands.
Sing to the Lord; bless his name;
announce his salvation, day after day.
We stand on the threshold of a new year. We look back with thanksgiving on all the events of 2010 that have brought us to this new place. We pause for a while, to say to God whatever we need to say, by way of regret and gratitude. Then we turn to greet a whole new beginning, to embrace 365 new days with trust and courage, while singing a new song, together.
1 John 2:18–21