Category Archives: humility

Palm Sunday Reflection – The donkey and the dreams by Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

(This was originally published at my Times Union blog and is reprinted here)
Palm Sunday… The Donkey, a poem by G.K. Chesterton is a reminder of the place occupied by the donkey, and the dreams. Ah, the humility of the lowly creature that carried the Lord Jesus on its back, as the people flung and waved their palm branches, shouting, “Hosanna! Hosanna!” Ah, the need to be mindful of, and listen to our dreams, no matter where they may lead.

To remember that this donkey, called a colt in the Scriptures, but a donkey, an ass, is simply meant for carting and carrying goods. Such a lowly creature, a humble one, carrying the Lord Jesus, himself humble. To remember the role that dreams played in getting Jesus onto that donkey.

I think of the donkey that ferried Mary to Bethlehem. Another donkey probably was pressed into service when Joseph, Mary and the child Jesus fled from Herod’s clutch. And yet another likely brought them back to Nazareth from Egypt, after Joseph was informed in a yet another dream, that it was safe to return.

It was not safe to return to Jerusalem Continue reading


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Filed under G.K. Chesterton, Holy Week 2012, humility, Lent 2012, Lenten Parish Reflections, Times Union blog

Lenten Reflections – Tuesday March 13, 2012 by Jeanne Speanburg

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Today’s first reading from Daniel relates the prayer of Azariah as he and his companions stood in the fiery furnace where King Nebechadnezzar had thrown them.

The gospel tells the parable of Jesus about the servant who owed a huge amount to a king and was forgiven his entire debt simply because he asked for patience and promised to repay the king in full. In truth, he had no way of repaying the debt. The servant responded to this forgiveness of debt by showing no mercy to a fellow servant who owed him a small debt and having him imprisoned.

I am struck by the difference in attitude of Azariah and the servant. Azariah is contrite and humble and his focus is on God. He knows who God is and he knows who he is in relation to God. The servant is focused on himself and his own self-preservation. He makes a promise he cannot possibly keep and shows no gratitude for the compassion of the king in forgiving his debt.

Lent is a good time to reflect on my own attitude toward God. Focusing on God rather than myself is always a good Lenten practice for me. Realizing my smallness and God’s bigness seems to create a balance in my life and makes me a better person. I pray that this Lent I can emulate Azariah more and the servant less.

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You Actually Are God’s Gift To the World – The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

There was once a baker who was so fair, he made sure to measure each item so that everyone got exactly what they ordered. He was thought to be so honest – and he was – and a good baker at that, so he was prosperous. This man was very proud of his reputation as a good baker and as a fair, fair man.

One day a woman came in seeking a dozen cookies and when she did not get a “baker’s dozen” of 13, she left the bakery angry and uttered some prophetic words.

In the story “The Baker’s Dozen“, set here in Albany no less, a theme unfolds. That theme is generosity. Our baker, Van Amsterdam, was so honest that no one was cheated. That said, no one got any extra either and that was something he was to pay a price for as we are to find out.

As the story continues, after this woman leaves his store, his business goes downhill fast. It was not until he had a dream in which he gave out extra that his success and his joy, returned to him. The essence of the tale is that there is always enough, but it is also clear that humility plays a role in generosity.

In our first reading from the book of Sirach, we hear:

My child, conduct your affairs with humility,
and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.
Humble yourself the more, the greater you are,
and you will find favor with God.

Conduct your affairs with humility! Humble yourself the more! These are admonitions that are not exactly in sync with our culture and society. Fairness has an almost excessive value at times… and we see where that got our Albany baker, Van Amsterdam. How do we learn to live this way?

Luke’s Gospel for today really cuts to the chase, when Jesus tells us: 

“When you hold a lunch or a dinner,
do not invite your friends or your brothers
or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors,
in case they may invite you back and you have repayment.”

That is an example of how fairness can become quid pro quo and anything but justice at that point. 

If you listen to today’s Gospel clearly, you might feel challenged. I know that I do! Once again, in statements that are completely antithetical to our contemporary culture and society, we are told to take the lowest place. In fact, we should naturally choose this… which is what we would do if we cooperated with God.

I guess the one name that comes to mind most quickly for me when I ponder this is St. Francis of Assisi. There are many others in the Great Cloud of Witnesses that is our communion and our hope, many of them unnamed. How do we make ourselves low without abandoning who we are?

Which brings me back to our baker friend, Van Amsterdam… He was not to simply lay prostrate before God and neighbor saying “I’m not worthy.” No, he had to use his gifts as baker, given freely by God, in a most generous way. That is humility.

Sadly we tend to think of meekness or humility as some kind of false piety and selflessness. In fact, it is quite the opposite. We are called and loved to be fully who we are, expressing richly all the gifts which God had given to us with such generous love. And when we stand in the place of who we are loved into being, expressing those gifts, with generosity and freedom – then we know we are all actually God’s gift to the world.

That is really the low seat, the last place and we can only progress in our spiritual journey from that very place. At least that is what I am told – this does not come easily to me.

In any event, this week, as you go forth and you think about justice and fairness in regard to who is in and who is out (orthodox versus progressives, liberals versus conseratives), who belongs and who doesn’t (Undocumented workers, LGBT folks or Muslims, who deserves something (the poor, unemployed, uninsured) and who doesn’t, maybe you, like I, will refer to these readings and prayers from this weekend. And when doing so, maybe we can all give out that extra cookie with joy and wild abandon and see what happens.

I think all sides might benefit from giving an extra something to the other, but that we must remember that God always uses the poor, infirm, the marginalized to show us the way. Remember that whole “fairness” thing?

It is the hardest work – to be who we are and to do it without getting in our own way, and without getting in God’s way. It is then and only then that we are God’s gift to the world… and to one another.

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Trinity Sunday – The Three Hermits by Leo Tolstoy

I am away this weekend, but I have a moment and I wanted to republish this post from August of 2007. We have added many new readers since then, so this may be new to you.

It is a great reminder that we live in a day to day world of practical measures that often demands doing and saying more and more and more just to keep going… but that at the heart of the Trinity is a purity and a simplicity that is startling in its clarity.

Peace and Blessings to all.

The Three Hermits is a short story by Leo Tolstoy, based upon on old Russian legend. It is a lovely allegory about prayer and simplicity.

The story basically says this- a bishop was traveling on a boat. When on this boat, he hears about some hermits. These hermits live on an island that the ship was passing. A fisherman told the bishop about being stranded overnight on that island and encountering these three holy hermits.

The bishop is compelled to go see this trio and convinces the captain of this ship to send him ashore in a rowboat. Off he goes to see these old men who are apparently living lives of simplicity and prayer.

Upon arrival he informs them that he wants to see what he can do to teach them something about the Lord. After all it would appear that he is so well schooled and learned as the bishop and they are but three simple ones on an island. The men say little. Undeterred, the bishop forges ahead and asks them to spell out just how they are saving their souls and serving God.

He quickly learns that they have but one prayer… “Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us”. While happy to hear that they know the Trinity, the bishop now goes into an explanation of how to pray the right way. To this end, he attempts to get them to memorize the Lord’s Prayer.

All day long he would say the words, the men would try and try to memorize and repeat them and each time the three holy, old men would just fumble their way through. Finally though they got it and the bishop was satisfied.

At this point the bishop takes his leave and as he rows back to the main ship he hears them praying the Lord’s Prayer in unison. He is so pleased that he could share his great knowledge with these simple servants. Unable to sleep he is standing on deck in the silent night. He feels so good about how he could teach these men this prayer and he thanks God for the chance to have enlightened the island dwellers.

Suddenly he notices something white and shining traveling towards the boat. It was moving at such rapid speed he could not fathom what it might be! Needless to say he was alarmed and turned to the helmsman to see if he knew what was happening. The helmsman just about loses controls of the ship.

And in the great white light he could suddenly make out the three hermits running across the surface of the water! The helmsman nearly faints and the bishop is shaken to the core.

As the hermits neared the ship the holy old ones said in a single voice “We have forgotten your teaching, servant of God”.

The bishop- realizing with gravity what has happened, simply tells them that their own original prayer will truly reach the Lord. Understanding that he – the great bishop – could not teach these men, he simply asked them to pray for “us sinners”.

Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us.

This story so beautifully illustrates that sometimes the learned have much to learn from the simple. Which pretty much sounds like something Jesus tried to tell us in many ways.

If you would like to read the story please click,here.

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Triduum – Good Friday Leads Us Into The Tomb

Once again, we had a beautiful liturgy on Friday evening at St Edward’s. Upon entering, if you came in the main doors, Father Butler had once again assembled items that invited us more deeply into the experience, with all of our senses.

On the table we found symbols of the cross, of crucifixion. As Father said in his homily, there are many representations of the Cross, all slightly different. He spoke beautifully of two images of a crucified Christ, with a smile (a jarring image, isn’t it, but necessary) but I was not able to find pictures of them to share here. In fact this slightly twisted smile of Christ crucified wove beautifully with his homily story, which I will attempt to write about at another time.

Also, I was so happy to encounter a new friend from another parish, who came to attend our service. It was good to be in community with her and her other friend on this day. I look around and know so many people here in our large parish and I can’t believe that last year at this time I knew only one person at St. Edward’s… Father Lanese.

The service began. It always strikes me when the priest and deacons enter in silence and prostrate themselves before the altar. It is the ultimate antithetical symbol, right there with the cross. In our world, as in the culture of Jesus’ time and frankly of all time, power, prestige and position seem to mean everything to the world. To prostrate oneself on the ground before God and congregation is a symbol of real humility.

Do I think that every priest or deacon feels this sublime sense of humility every Good Friday? Maybe they do and maybe they don’t; I would think that one has many feelings in that position.

Why wouldn’t they struggle with their humility any less than the rest of us? After all, no matter the designation or ordination, we are all human. Yet, we must all empty ourselves and bow down before God. This is life’s work.

The readings were so well done and the choir was outstanding. I am always moved by how the RCIA candidates carry the cross in when that time comes. It made me cry a little and I was aware of the tears of others. Behold, behold – the wood of the Cross – the songs of the hymn are still in my head along with the reverent and slow process of carrying this cross.

Our service progressed and we got to the point of venerating the Cross. And suddenly something happened to to me… I felt strange and unsettled. My usual feeling of some kind of connection to God seemed to suddenly snap and go dark. I have re-written this sentence about 22 times now and no matter how I say it, I feel like it sounds so silly and self-indulgent. I don’t know how else to say it, so if that is how it sounds, so be it.

Has this ever happened to you? It has happened to me, but not so profoundly, or at least not so profoundly and sharply. God may appear faint and distant at times, but this felt distinctly different. And not good. In a rare moment, I decided that I might detachedly observe what this was and just go with it.

The feeling, or rather non-feeling was disturbing. It felt kind of like someone left in the middle of a conversation and I was left there alone in the dark. I left church feeling confused and irritable.

Perhaps I was in the Tomb? I don’t know. Again, I just tried to go with it.

At 11pm, I returned to church for Evening Prayer. At about 10:55 actually, I entered the semi-dark sanctuary, with our Cross at the foot of the altar, draped in red. There were 5 other people there, including Father Butler.

These two nights of Compline or Evening prayer have reminded me of how much I long for this kind of community prayer. If you have never attended, I would simply say that it is worth your time next time the opportunity presents itself.

Somehow, even in my tomb, a small chink of light came in, almost imperceptible. Some tears began to flow and while I still felt distant, I did not feel lost.

Which leads me to the long winded point of this piece… How do we enter the tomb and stay there? As if the Cross were not hard enough, the tomb is potentially worse. Kill me and get it over with leads to this place of… Well this place of nothing.

We as Catholics, as Christians live in the hope that we know what will come next. We know how the story ends. Yet we must relive this story all the time as our lives constantly leads us to crucifixions and subsequent resurrections. Over and over and over again.

Then this morning I read this piece by Rose Marie Berger, someone that I have had the opportunity to hear speak. What she remembers of her childhood Good Friday to Easter experiences is worth your time I think.

May this time in the tomb teach us, as Berger tells us in her writing…

Mother Teresa wrote, “the agony of desolation is so great” and “[God] is destroying everything in me.” Until finally, after 16 years, something changed.

Mother Teresa took on a discipline of “smiling at God” in the emptiness. Later, she was able to write, “I have come to love the darkness.”

Today, I pray to smile at God and learn to love the darkness. Check back with me- I have the feeling it will be even harder than I think.

And I think it will be pretty hard.


Filed under Father Butler, Fran Rossi Szpylczyn, Good Friday, humility, Triduum

Triduum Begins-Holy Thursday

On Thursday night many of our community gathered to celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. It was a beautiful celebration and it reflects that joy and sorrow are intertwined like the strands that make up a piece of thread.

Before our sadness we do celebrate and this meal represents the bounty of the Lord, the goodness and the nourishment of the Lord. We remember that we must bring gifts to God and those simple gifts of bread and wine are transformed, out of His suffering, into our Sacred Banquet.

This is also the mass where feet are washed, as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. The washing of feet is a rather intimate act. I got to find this out as I had my own feet washed by another. It was challenging and uncomfortable; faith is like that in my experience. I must be called to come up against what makes me feel ill at ease.

What was harder… Not being sure of when to get up to go to the seat the Father Butler had pointed out to me earlier. Getting up and feeling awkward as I made my way to that chair. Sitting facing backwards. I couldn’t look up and allow myself to make eye contact with anyone, which is very strange for me.

Or was it when Deacon Gene Kelenski bent down before me and I removed my sock reluctantly. As I held back I knew that I had to stop thinking about Gene and to start thinking about Christ. That I can tell you is easier said than done. Gene had to move my foot over the bowl; it did not want to go there of its own volition, which is of course my volition.

Then the warm water cascades over what I think to be my very ugly foot. I am reminding myself that such self-criticism is redolent with narcissiscm, but that is another story for another day. What I should remind myself is to get out of my own way.

After the water, the gentle touch of my feet being dried off, which really makes me want to leap up and run away. No, I just continue to sit there feeling uncomfortable and maybe even a little angry. And wishing I felt otherwise.

Oh no! Not the other foot too! Yes. The other foot. Lather, rinse, repeat as the saying goes. Deep sigh. What was I thinking when I volunteered to do this?

Enough of my self-indulgent ramblings. I only say all this because I think there is something for all of us to work out in community about serving and being served.

I will say this- doing the serving is the easy part in many ways. Until I peel the onion a bit to find my pride. The being served is the perfect albeit uncomfortable counterbalance to the whole thing.

This leads me to think that I must pray with the image of Jesus washing my feet more often and me finding something to hold onto there, rather than to shirk away from. So much for metanoia, I think.

We are all Peters in some way are we not. Here are some words by Jean Vanier from something called “Not Optional” on this topic.

We have difficulty recognizing this kingdom of God because it is so small and hidden, like treasure hidden in a field. We human beings are so attracted by power and glory that frequently we do not see it, or want to see it. In order to show the radical newness of life in his kingdom, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. This shocks and scandalizes them…. But it’s as if Jesus is trying to say: ‘Yes, this is the way to love in my kingdom.’ That is why to have one’s feet washed by Jesus is not something optional, but a vital, necessary part of discipleship. It means entering into a whole new world. -Jean Vanier, The Scandal of Service: Jesus Washes Our Feet

The service ends some time later, we stream out and head to the chapel, to the Repository. Can we keep watch with the Lord? I am reminded of my own visit to the real Gethsemane and the power of that place; I am further reminded of the many Gethsemanes that pop up and that are easily and frequently slumbered through.

I became enveloped in the dark silence of the chapel and the container it provided for my prayer. My prayer finally gave way- the first time in a very long time to some kind of deeper surrender. Silence, when I allow it to do so, is a form of ecstasy for me and I do use that word rather purposefully even if it is uncomfortably.

Then – Compline or Night Prayer. Someone lead the prayer and she sang so richly, so beautifully… Pane Lingua, the words in Latin so comforting to me. I am reminded of the long tradition of our church and how that with all its woes, there are so many gifts.

May this Triduum bring us all closer to God by being brought closer to one another. Let us pray for the world at large and for our community here, including and especially our newest members.

At the Easter Vigil, they will be fully entered into our community and to the Catholic Church. Please keep them in your prayers and welcome them with an open and loving heart.


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Feast of the Holy Family

As we celebrate the Feast of The Holy Family there is much to reflect upon.

It is not that we have not heard it before, because we have. Like Father Butler will often remind us, we need to hear the Scripture over and over and over again. I am reminded of how we often need to be told or to tell someone how much we love them, over and over again. We may know it, but it is important to have the continuity and repetition.

As humans, we have “prettified” up the Nativity story really well. Father Lanese was speaking of this just the other day. When I look at so many pieces of art, which are beautiful and prayerful, without a doubt. (As you can see I use them to illustrate this blog very often!)

However, the reality of Bethlehem was probably different. A smiling, gurgling and wiggly baby in the straw, a beatific Mary and a beaming Joseph, several awestruck (but remarkably clean!) shepherds and a few very well behaved animals who focus on the babe. It sure looks good, but…

No it was likely a dark, dank and filthy space. While I have never had a child myself, I know many other women who did in the comfort and safety of a hospital and while happy, they might not have looked their glowy best so soon after the birth as Mary is presented to us. The shepherds, however adoring they might be were probably rank and disheveled from not only their work but from having left the fields to come find the baby. Joseph – I am thinking that despite his many dreams and reassurances that he might have felt a bit freaked out at the scene that lay out before him. And the animals. Now I am a city girl, so what do I know of them, but it is hard to imagine that they would just be standing there, still and with a steady gaze.

It is not a bad thing that we have the beautiful images of the Holy Family. It just might be important however, to consider the reality of it, as we ponder what happened.

Poor, downtrodden, awestruck, overwhelmed. It is almost impossible to think of. Yet we must. It is in that poor, downtrodden, awestruck and overwhelmed place that God appears.

And God appears, comes to us in the form of this tiny, vulnerable baby. This God who becomes incarnational, who becomes flesh – like us. Now God being God could have chosen to come in as a baby or as anything! What did God choose? A baby! The smallest, the most vulnerable and the most needy. Think of this… God could have chosen to come in as the baby of the Romans. Or God could have chosen to come as the baby of the Pharisees.

However, God chooses the poor, the disenfranchised, those from the lower rungs. This is remarkable and it makes perfect sense. Would the Romans have accepted such a thing? Even if they did, they would manipulate it for their own purposes. Same with the Pharisees. Only those open and with nothing and as a result, with nothing to lose, say yes to this God as infant.

Mary in her fiat creates possibility that might not otherwise have happened. In her state of being she was not only able to say “yes”, but to be so open as to let this be about the glory of God. We hear that in the Magnificat very clearly. (As an aside, the dictators that ran Guatemala in the 80’s outlawed the public reading of the Magnificat because they believed it was too revolutionary in tone!)

So as we pray about and ponder the Holy Family today, may we remind ourselves of how God enters in through the smallest, the poorest, those on the fringes and not as those in power. May we find our own graces through our own poor, small and disenfranchised not only in our society, but more importantly – deeply within our own souls.

And that is why I will close with this image, from the present. It is the entry way to the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem. You will notice that the door is very, very small. It is that way on purpose and it is the only way in, you must bend down to go through and enter.

It is called the Door of Humility for a reason.


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