The Visitation – Revisited


We are all familiar with the biblical story of the Visitation.  It happens at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth, both pregnant, meet. One is carrying Jesus and the other is carrying John the Baptist. The Gospels want us to recognize that both these pregnancies are biologically impossible; one is a virginal conception and the other is a conception that occurs far beyond someone’s childbearing years. So there is clearly something of the divine in each. In simple language, each woman is carrying a special gift from heaven and each is carrying a part of the divine promise that will one day establish God’s peace on this earth.

But neither Mary nor Elizabeth, much less anyone around them, consciously recognizes the divine connection between the two children they are carrying. The Gospels present them to us as “cousins”, both the children and their mothers; but the Gospels want us to think deeper than biology. They are cousins in the same way that Christ, and those things that are also of the divine, are cousins. This, among other things, is what is contained in the concept of the Visitation.

Mary and Elizabeth meet, both are pregnant with the divine. Each is carrying a child from heaven, one is carrying Christ and the other is carrying a unique prophet, the “cousin” of the Christ. And a curious thing happens when they meet. Christ’s cousin, inside his mother, without explicit consciousness, leaps for joy in the presence of Christ and that reaction releases the Magnificat inside of the one carrying Christ.

There’s a lot in that image: Christ’s cousin unconsciously leaps for joy in the presence of Christ and that reaction draws the Magnificat out of the one who is carrying the Christ. Christian de Cherge, the Trappist Abbott who was martyred in Algeria in 1996, suggests that, among other things, this image is the key to how we, as Christians, are meant to meet other religions in the world. He sees the image as illustrating this paradigm:

Christianity is carrying Christ and other religions are also carrying something divine, a divine “”cousin”, one who points to Christ. But all of this is unconscious; we do not really grasp the bond, the connection, between what we are carrying and what the other is carrying. But we will recognize their kinship, however unconsciously, when we stand before another who does not share our Christian faith but is sincere and true to his or her own faith. In that encounter we will sense the connection:  What we are carrying will make something leap for joy inside the other and that reaction will help draw the Magnificat out of us and, like Mary, we will want to stay with that other for mutual support.

And we need that support, as does the other. As Christian de Cherge puts it: “We know that those whom we have come to meet are like Elizabeth: they are bearers of a message that comes from God. Our church does not tell us and does not know what the exact bond is between the Good News we bear and the message that gives life to the other.  … We may never know exactly what that bond is, but we do know that the other is also a bearer of a message that comes from God.  So what should we do? What does witness consist in? What about mission?  …  See, when Mary arrives, it is Elizabeth who speaks first. Or did she? … For most certainly Mary would have said: ‘Peace, Peace be with you’. And this simple greeting made something vibrate, someone, inside of Elizabeth. And in this vibration, something was said. … Which is the Good News, not the whole of the Good News, but what can be glimpsed of it in the moment.”

Christian de Cherge then adds this comment: “In the end, if we are attentive, if we situate our encounter with the other in the attention and the desire to meet the other, and in our need for the other and what he has to say to us, it is likely that the other is going to say something to us that will connect with what we are carrying, something that will reveal complicity with us … allowing us to broaden our Eucharist.”

We need each other, everyone on this planet, Christians and non-Christians, Jews and Muslims, Protestants and Roman Catholics, Evangelicals and Unitarians, sincere agnostics and atheists; we need each other to understand God’s revelation. Nobody understands fully without the other. Thus our interrelations with each other should not be born only out of enthusiasm for the truth we have been given, but it should issue forth too from our lack of the other. Without the other, without recognizing that the other too is carrying the divine, we will, as Christian de Cherge asserts, be unable to truly release our own Magnificat. Without each other, none of us will ever be able to pray the Eucharist “for the many”.

Honoring Talent and Grace – Jean Beliveau RIP


For those of you who aren’t Canadian, perhaps this name might not mean much, but, this past week, Canada lost one of its great cultural icons, Jean Beliveau, a famed athlete. He died and all Canadians, including this Canadian in exile, mourn his passing.

Jean Beliveau was more than an athlete, though certainly he was a one-in-a-million athlete. The record of his achievements almost defies belief. He played in the National Hockey League for 20 seasons and ended up with ten championship rings. Later, as an executive, he was part of another seven championships. Imagine anyone, in any sport, at the highest level, winning 17 championships!

But that wasn’t what defined his greatness, nor the reason why a country fell in love with him and made him a national icon. It was his grace, the exceptional way that he carried himself both on and off the ice. Seventeen championships are remarkable, but his real achievement was the respect that he drew from everyone, both inside the athletic arena and outside of it. I don’t know of any pro athlete, in any sport, who has garnered this type of respect. Indeed, long after his professional career was over, the Canadian Prime Minister, asked him to become the Governor-General of Canada, an office offered only to someone who is, for an entire country, a symbol of unity, dignity, and grace. He graciously declined.

What made him so unique? There have been other great athletes and pop stars who were humble and gracious. What sets him apart? Greatness is somewhat of an intangible; it’s hard to nail down what precisely sets someone apart in this way. Why Jean Beliveau? He was a just a hockey player after all. What made him so singular in drawing respect?

The renowned Polish, psychiatrist, Kasmir Dabrowski, had a thought-provoking theory about human maturity and what it takes to get here. For him, we grow by breaking down, by being driven to our knees through various crises which force us to move beyond our mediocre habits and immaturities. Richard Rohr calls this falling upwards: We mature through failure, grow arrogant through success. Mostly that’s true. Success, more than failure, destroys lives.

But is that logical? Isn’t it more logical to grow through success? Shouldn’t success induce gratitude within us and make us more generous and big-hearted? Someone asked Dabrowski that question in class one day. This was his answer: “You’re right, success should make us more grateful and big-hearted; that’s the ideal way to grow … except, in more than 40 years of clinical experience, have never seen it work that way. It only works that way in rare, exceptional cases … and that, I believe, is what makes for a great person.” A great person is someone in whom success enlarges the soul rather than swells the ego.

When Jean Beliveau broke into the National Hockey League he was, at that time, the tallest, some-skilled, most-graceful, and handsomest player in the league. No small gifts to carry. He was a little like the young, King Saul in the bible who when he was initially crowned king was described this way: Among the men of Benjamin was a man called Saul, a handsome man in the prime of life. Of all the Israelites there was no one more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders taller than anyone else. But, sadly, all of that giftedness and success did not make Saul a good king. Rather it destroyed him. Clinging falsely to his giftedness, his life became a tragedy. His height and grace and handsomeness left him jealous before the gifts of others and he became paranoid and spiteful and eventually ended up taking his own life. Saul’s story is one of the great tragedies ever written; and sadly it keeps getting written too many times in the lives of the hugely talented. Giftedness comes with its own perils. Giftedness and success just as easily swell the ego as enlarge the soul.

Sadly we see a lot of that today, not least in the sports world where ego and self-promotion is legitimized and is often even seen as a desired quality inside an athlete, a virtue rather than a vice, because bravado and arrogant strut can help intimidate opponents, win games, and make the world watch.  It makes for color, for hype, brings fans to the park, and awards a certain notoriety and fame. Character gets trumped by color and hype, but arrogance can be a help win games.

Even so, I’m glad I once knew a different time, a time when athletes and most everyone else still had to be apologetic about ego and self-promotion. I’m glad that when I was a boy, obsessed with sports and looking for a hero among athletes, there was a superstar, Jean Beliveau, who eschewed arrogance, bravado, strut, the taunting of opponents, and crass self-promotion, and played the game with such grace and humility that it invoked the right kind of admiration, even as it won games.

Self-Sacrifice and the Eucharist


In 1996, Muslim extremists martyred nearly an entire community of Trappist monks in Atlas, Algeria. Many of us, thanks to the movie, Of Gods and Men, are familiar with their story and are familiar too with the extraordinary faith and courage with which these monks, particularly their Abbott, Christian de Cherge, met their deaths. Indeed the last letters of Christian de Cherge reveal a faith and love that is truly extraordinary.

For example, in the months leading up to his death, when he already sensed what was to befall him, he wrote a letter to his family within which he already forgave his killers and hoped that they would later be with him in heaven, with both them and him playing in the sun before God.  As well, after his first face-to-face meeting with a terrorist leader, who has just beheaded nine people, he prayed: “Disarm me, disarm them.”

In his journals, which are published today, he shares this story: On the morning of his first communion, he told his mother that he really didn’t understand what he was doing in receiving the Eucharist. His mother replied, simply: “You will understand later on.” His journals then trace how his understanding of the Eucharist deepened during his lifetime, especially in the light of his interrelation with Islam and one extraordinary incident in his life.  This was the extraordinary incident:

From July 1959 until January 1961, Christian was an officer serving with the French army in Algeria. While there, he befriended a man named Mohammed, a family man, a simple man, and a devout Muslim. They soon forged a very deep bond. One day, during a military skirmish, Christian was taken captive by the Algerian army. His friend, Mohammed, intervened and convinced his captors that Christian was sympathetic to their cause. Christian was released but, the next day, Mohammed was found murdered, in retaliation for his role in freeing Christian.

This act of selflessness by his Muslim friend, who in effect gave his life for Christian, permanently seared Christian’s soul. It was never far from his mind and his decision, as a monk, to return to Algeria and live in solidarity with the Muslim community at Atlas and remain there until he died, was largely a result of that foundational event. But it also deepened his understanding of the Eucharist.

His mother had told him: “You will understand later”, and now he did understand: The Eucharist doesn’t just make Jesus present; it also makes present his sacrificial death for us. Jesus died for us “and for the many”; but so too did his friend, Mohammed. He also gave his death for another and in that sacrifice both imitated Jesus’ death and participated in it. Thus, for Christian, every time he celebrated the Eucharist, he celebrated too the gift of Mohammed’s sacrifice for him. His friend, Mohammed, had also shed his blood “for the many”.

Mohammed’s sacrifice helped Christian to recognize and more deeply appropriate Jesus’ sacrifice because he believed that, in the Eucharist, Jesus’ sacrifice and his friend’s sacrifice were both made real and both rendered present. Christian believed that Christ’s sacrifice includes the sacrifice shown in every act of sacrificial love and consequently his friend’s sacrifice was part of Christ’s sacrifice.

He’s right. At every Eucharist we memorialize the gift that Jesus made of his death, but that memorial includes too the sacrificial gift of everyone who has imitated Jesus’ selfless love and sacrifice. In the Eucharist, the sacrifice of Christ that we memorialize includes the sacrifice of all who have died, however unconsciously, “for the many”.

The Eucharist is a far-reaching mystery with multiple depths and levels of meaning.  We don’t ever fully grasp it. But we’re in good company: When Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper the apostles also didn’t really understand what he was doing, as is witnessed by Peter’s protests when Jesus tries to wash their feet. Peter’s protests show clearly that he did not comprehend what Jesus meant in this Eucharistic gesture. And so, Jesus’ words to Peter and the apostles are almost identical to those Christian de Cherge’s mother spoke to him when he told her that he didn’t understand the Eucharist: “Later, you will understand.”

When I made my first communion, I had a childlike understanding of the Eucharist. In my seven-year-old, catechized mind, I believed that I was receiving the real body of Jesus and that, at the mass where the Eucharistic hosts were consecrated, we celebrated the sacrifice of Jesus that opened the gates of heaven for us.  Numerous theology degrees and sixty years later, I know now that what I understood about the Eucharist as a child was correct; but I also know that when those two things, Christ’s real presence and Christ’s sacrifice for us, are unpackaged, we find ourselves immersed in an ineffable mystery within which, among other things, all who sacrifice in love for us are also part of the Real Presence.

And so we keep going to Eucharist, knowing that later, we will understand.