Just before Christmas, I lost my youngest sister Gi Gi, to a sudden accident. She was in a coma for several weeks prior to her transition. As my sister hovered between life and death, I found myself in a deep state of grief and reflection. A reflection on birth, life, death, and the embracing of the great mystery. I choose to call the great mystery Love, or, better stated, Agape Love.
Searching for happiness and peace has to do with our connectedness to ourselves, those around us, and to our universe.
“Many of us feel disconnected by difficult times, longing for ways to awaken God’s love in ourselves and the world,” Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, has written in his book The Universal Christ, “The reality we face is simple yet difficult—the healing of the world hinges upon honoring the inherent sacredness of the world and everyone in it.”
Sorrow and sadness are part of our human existence, both personally and on a global level. In reflecting on grief, I am aware that there is simultaneously a feeling of deep love, if we open ourselves completely to the emotion. Tears have a purifying, rejuvenating, and Light-bearing power, as well as a great capacity to heal. Consider the miracle of the raising of Lazarus. It took a unification of the deepest human expression; first, the tears of Mary and the others gathered there, and then the tears of Jesus, combined with the most all-embracing, highest divinity (Divine Breath, known in Hebrew as ruach). Lazarus was not just lifted from the grave; he was healed as well. (John XI 33-38)
“Faith is much better than belief. Belief is when someone else does the thinking.”
– Buckminster Fuller
If you ask most people, they will tell you that faith and belief are the same thing. But in truth, they are not.
According to Webster, the definition of belief is: “An opinion or judgement in which a person is fully persuaded.” Belief often comes from someone else. For example, your parents follow a certain religion, which is defined by a certain set of beliefs. Therefore, you take on that same belief system.
Belief or Faith?
Belief is in the mind, whereas faith is in the heart. They can intersect though, and even unite as one.
Faith comes from within, is spiritual, and sees love. This includes our own self-realization that forms or confirms our beliefs. But it is bigger than that. Faith requires action. If our faith doesn’t move us to do something or say something—to actually take action—it’s not really faith. “So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.” – James 2:17.
“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Difference Between Belief and Faith
Many of the people I work with have cancer. Many have advanced cancer, and often, their doctor tells them how long they have to live. The doctor may pronounce, “You have three to six months, perhaps a year to live,” and the person takes that to be the ultimate truth. And they begin to believe it, based solely on the doctor’s words, which is usually based on statistics and assumes few, if any, will beat the odds. Obviously, trying to predict how long someone has to live has serious effects on their well-being by imposing a belief that seems certain and final, and takes away any sense of hope and faith in a higher power.
I have many patients who are living many more years than anyone ever expected. And more than just surviving, they are thriving. I frequently tell my patients, “Don’t believe what you are told. Instead, focus on doing the best you can to live, and to live well. I will do the same, and hopefully, your healing team will embrace that same approach. As long as we’re doing the best we can, there is nothing to worry about.”
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” ~ Proverbs 3:5
Wisdom from the Desert Fathers
The Desert Fathers were Christian hermits who lived in the Egyptian desert in the third century AD. Following the example of Jesus, the monks devoted themselves to lives of prayer and austerity. The first Desert Father was Paul of Thebes, and the most well-known was Anthony the Great, who became known as both the father and founder of desert monasticism.
Father Paul once visited Anthony when he was teaching three monks about a very difficult matter of faith. Paul withdrew into a corner and waited silently until Father Antonius was ready.
Antonius asked the youngest of the three monks what he thought about the matter. The young man responded immediately; what he lacked in knowledge, he supplemented with fire and enthusiasm. When he was finished, Father Antonius remained silent for a while, then said, “You haven’t found the right answer yet.”
Then the second one got the floor. He was a little older, had read some books, and had more life experience. He chose learned words and formulated them more carefully. When he was finished, Father Antonius said, “You too have not found the right answer yet.”
Finally, the oldest of the three was allowed to give an answer. He spoke thoughtfully, and you could tell he had read many books and had a long prayer experience. When he was finished, Father Antonius remarked, “You haven’t found the right answer yet.”
The moment he opened his mouth to say something about the very difficult issue of faith himself, he turned to the old abbot and asked, “Father Paul, could you possibly say something about this?” Finally, Paul said: “I don’t know…”
Father Anthony turned to his three disciples and with a raised finger, he said, “Father Paul has found the right answer.”
These old stories prove to be relevant for today. “I don’t know,” is the correct answer to complex theological issues. How beautiful is that? It’s good to remember the next time you end up in a discussion or question in a matter about faith.
Faith, Courage, and Patience
Faith will empower our patience. Courage will sustain our perseverance. With that faith and courage, we can live with the forces of change. We will not set ourselves against them defiantly, as we are first inclined. And as we abide the changes in good faith, trusting that our life will unfold as we dreamed, or as it was intended, our despair and doubt fade. For we realize that our personal power and peace need not be the victims of things we do not know. We discover that those times of confusion and doubt need not undermine our connection to God and his universal wisdom. For that wisdom is living itself out in our lives, expressing its Divine guidance in ways we did not know.
The Question of the Resurrection
Although Judaism does not have a definitive answer to the question of what happens after we die, resurrection has played an important role in Jewish eschatology.
“From the Torah: for it is written: ‘And the Lord said to Moses, Behold you shall sleep with your fathers; and this people will rise up’ [Deuteronomy 31:16]. From the Prophets: as it is written: ‘Your dead men shall live, together with my dead bodies shall they arise. Awake and sing, you that dwell in the dust; for your dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out its dead.’ [Isaiah 26:19]; from the Writings: as it is written, ‘And the roof of your mouth, like the best wine of my beloved, like the best wine, that goes down sweetly, causing the lips of those who are asleep to speak’ [Song of Songs 7:9].” Rabbi Meir also answered this question saying: “As it is said: ‘Then will Moses and the children of Israel sing this song unto the Lord’ [Exodus 15:1]. It is not said ‘sang’ but ‘will sing’; hence the Resurrection is deducible from the Torah.”
For many Christians, ‘belief’ in the resurrection is fundamental to their religion. Most rehearse this belief every Easter Sunday, but then stick it away in the closet for the rest of the year.
Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.”
– Saint Augustine
Easter, referred to as Pascha within the Eastern Christian religion, is considered to be the most important Orthodox holy day of the year. Pascha comes from both the Greek and Latin words for “Easter,” the day celebrating when Jesus Christ rose from the dead. The verbal form of this word, pascho in Greek, means “to suffer.” Originally, the Hebrew word pasach referred to the Passover feast (Exodus 12) that was celebrated during the same week Jesus was crucified.
Faith Requires Trust and Intimacy
Father Richard Rohr believes that we can only experience true intimacy when we are willing to be vulnerable ourselves. He goes on to say that intimacy could be described as our capacity for closeness and tenderness toward things. It makes all love possible, and yet it also reveals our utter incapacity to love back as the other deserves.
I think that many of us are afraid of intimacy, of baring our deepest identity to another human or even to God. Yet people who risk intimacy are invariably happier and much more authentically human. Soulful intimacy is a gateway into the sacred realm of human and divine love.
According to Father Richard Rohr: The big and hidden secret is this: an infinite God seeks and desires intimacy with the human soul. The mystics (those who personally know the inner space of God) are aware that they have been let in on a big and wondrous secret. Anyone not privy to this inner dialogue would call such people presumptuous, foolish, or even arrogant. This is without a doubt “God’s secret, in which all the jewels of wisdom and knowledge are hidden (Colossians 2:3).”
The Radical Transformation of a Caterpillar
There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.”
– Buckminster Fuller
There is no scientific basis for resurrection. There is no way a living form could die, dissolve away, and be reassembled into another creature. Hold onto that thought…and now, start to imagine the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly. Truly, it is a miracle. If science was to look for evidence of death followed by resurrection, they wouldn’t need to go very far. It happens every day. Caterpillars die and are resurrected as butterflies, using the same fluids as the original life form.
“I believe in God, only I spell it as Nature.” ~ Frank Lloyd Wright
Within its protective casing, the caterpillar radically transforms, eventually emerging as a butterfly or moth. But what does that radical transformation entail?
Scientists have long been astonished by the transformation of caterpillars into butterflies. Before hatching, when a caterpillar is still developing inside its egg, it grows an imaginal disc for each of the adult body parts it will need as a mature butterfly or moth—discs for its eyes, for its wings, its legs and so on. The caterpillar eats voraciously during its entire lifespan, presumably to accumulate sufficient nutrients for the coming transition. When the time is right, the caterpillar spins itself into a silk coverlet (a cocoon) and digests itself. During the larval phase, the release of enzymes kills the caterpillar and destroys all of its organs, turning into a mushy soup, with nothing left of its former self. If one opens a larva, there is no sign of the original caterpillar; it is gone, except for the “imaginal cells” that survive.
Then, through a miraculous sequence of events, a new set of instructions takes hold, and the amino acids in the larval soup are rearranged, carefully and meticulously, into an entirely new organism. The imaginal cells emerge, armed with genetic instructions for the transformation. Initially, the caterpillar’s immune system rejects the imaginal cells, but they continue to multiply. Finally, the imaginal cells begin to clump together, forming the organs of an entirely new organism with completely different anatomical features, including long legs and wings.
The fact that the caterpillar’s immune system attacks the new cells of the butterfly demonstrates that biologically, the two insect forms are entirely distinct life forms. Essentially, the caterpillar dies and is resurrected.
One of the songs from the popular new Disney movie “Encanto” is “Dos Oruguitas,” the first Oscar-nominated song written entirely in Spanish. Dos Oruguitas translates into “Two (Little) Caterpillars.” The song is performed beautifully by the Colombian singer Sebastian Yatra.
The song describes two caterpillars in love. They rejoice in their togetherness, holding each other, staying together constantly through good and bad weather. Just as soulmates do! But somehow, they know that very soon, they will need to let go. The time comes when they turn into larvae, re-emerging as butterflies. There is nothing the caterpillars can do to stop the inevitable. The song and images evoked are beautiful, and state something that carries us beyond the mundane ordinary and into the truly meaningful extraordinary—the thought that we are called to live in the image of GOD. There, we will go from crawling to flying and be truly happy.
Life After Death
Religions have debated the concept of death and resurrection for tens of thousands of years. And during the millennia, scientists have generally been silent about the likelihood of rebirth. After all, from an empirical point of view, there is nothing to say. There is no experiment that one can perform to prove or disprove the existence of life after death.
Generally speaking, woman are in many ways stronger than men, and the bible highlights this as it regards faith. Other than John, it was all women at the cross, and the first witnesses of the Resurrection are women. This is beautiful, and I believe it is profoundly insightful.
Pope Francis said, “and they had accompanied him to the very end.” Even though the women initially reacted with fear, it is their “loving remembrance of their experience with the Master that enables the women to master their fear, and to bring the message of the Resurrection to the Apostles and all the others.” The Apostles and disciples found it hard to believe in the Risen Christ, not the women! “The women,” he attested, “are compelled by love and know how to welcome this announcement with faith.”
The Butterfly Effect and Transforming Ourselves
The “butterfly effect” is the phenomenon whereby a small change at one place in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere. For example, a butterfly flapping its wings in Rio de Janeiro might change the weather in Chicago. I believe that everyone matters, everything matters, and every moment matters. We are only scratching the surface of what we are capable of. For all of us, limitations are a lack of faith and trust.
“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” Matthew 6:28
“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.” Matthew 6:28
Happiness is not living without pain or suffering; but is the mastery within, to embody peace, joy, compassion, kindness and love. God has created us for interdependence as God has created us in God’s image—the image of a divine fellowship and Divine love. We must find the divinity within and in a sense resurrect twice, once in the world, and then again after the world. We are to be Kenosis, which in Eastern Christian theology means to empty oneself and become entirely receptive of God’s Divine will.
We all are aware that death will come eventually. The important questions are: What are we seeking in this life? What is our faith? How much do we trust? Are we willing to be authentically our Divine selves and through intimacy share that with others without limitation? In this way, we begin our own resurrection. This is our transformation from caterpillar to butterfly, from crawling on the earth to flying freely.
My heart and prayers are with the Ukrainian people during this tragic time of war. I feel a deep bond with Ukraine stemming from my spiritual and theological roots. Although I was baptized and raised as a Roman Catholic, and taught by Polish Franciscans, I am professed as a Secular Third Order Franciscan in the Eastern Byzantine Ukrainian Catholic Rite.
Below are photos of Holy Protection, the beautiful Ukrainian Franciscan monastery where I lived. It no longer exists, but the sister monastery, Holy Dormition, is still active. I spent a lot of time at that monastery as well. In both monasteries, I was the only non-Ukrainian, and I always felt welcome.
The photo above is of Sts. Volodymyr and Olha Church, in Lviv, Ukraine. It was built since the return of the church in the 1990s when Ukraine was freed from Russia.
The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is the largest Eastern Catholic Church in the world. While many such western churches use elaborate sculptural architectural elements, including on the icon screen, the saintly imagery of eastern Byzantine-Rite churches is represented exclusively through two-dimensional, painted icons, not through statues.
The Birth of the Eastern Byzantine Spiritual Tradition
The Eastern Byzantine liturgical, theological and spiritual tradition was born in the first six centuries AD in Constantinople, when it was the capital of the Eastern half of the Roman Empire. The rich traditions evolved from pre-Christian legacies reshaped over a millennium of Christian belief, and were influenced by its relation to the West and the Roman Church for over 400 years.
The Byzantine liturgy is a common inheritance of Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches, including the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Its beauty is said to have been the decisive factor that dazzled emissaries of the pagan Kyivan Prince Vladimir, who saw it in Constantinople and “did not know whether they were in heaven or on earth.”
The Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, the most frequently celebrated form of the liturgy, provides a good introduction to Byzantine worship in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
The liturgy invokes God, “Whose power is beyond comparison, Whose glory is beyond comprehension, Whose mercy is beyond measure, and Whose love for humankind is beyond expression.” “You dwell in the holies,” it continues, “with three-fold cries of holy the seraphim acclaim You, the cherubim glorify You, and all the heavenly powers worship You.” Even in (and perhaps through) such transcendent language, believers also see God present in their midst.
Chanting/singing is integral to the liturgy. Almost the whole of it is chanted, even the Gospel reading. Liturgical music is solely dependent on a cappella singing, not on musical instruments.
“Pray for Ukraine Icon”
Icon of Sophia with daughters from a Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine
Praying For Peace
In recent days within the Ukraine, archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych, head of the Eastern-rite Ukrainian Catholic Church, traveled from Kyiv to meet with Cardinal Krajewski and with Archbishop Mieczyslaw Mokrzycki, head of the Latin-rite Archdiocese of Lviv. The three joined representatives of other Christian churches and other religions at the Latin-rite cathedral to pray for peace.
Archbishop Shevchuk turned to God, praying: “Before your eyes today we present the sorrow and pain of Ukraine. Mountains of corpses, rivers of blood and seas of tears. We pray for all those who gave up their lives for the homeland, for our army, for the sons and daughters of Ukraine, who shield lives with their own bodies in the face of the enemy.”
“We pray for all those innocently killed, peaceful people of Ukraine: women, children, the elderly. We pray for the victims of Mariupol who are being buried in massive common graves without Christian burial and honor,” he continued. “Receive our prayers for their eternal repose.”
Ukrainian citizens in the town of Bakhmach, some 175 kilometers (109 miles) northeast of the capital of Kyiv, attempted to block Russian tanks advancing, according to video footage that circulated on social media on Saturday.
Residents of Bakhmach, Ukraine, attempt to stop Russian tanks from advancing toward the capital Kyiv, February, 26, 2022. (Screengrab/Twitter)
The “National Spiritual Anthem” of Ukraine (МОЛИТВА ЗА УКРАЇНУ). This hymn is familiar to most Ukrainians. The English lyrics are as follows:
Lord, oh the Great and Almighty, Protect our beloved Ukraine, Bless her with freedom and light Of your holy rays.
With learning and knowledge enlighten Us, your children small, In love pure and everlasting Let us, oh Lord, grow.
We pray, oh Lord Almighty, Protect our beloved Ukraine, Grant our people and country All your kindness and grace.
Bless us with freedom, bless us with wisdom, Guide into kind world, Bless us, oh Lord, with good fortune Forever and evermore.
Take time to listen to this beautiful, heartfelt prayer. It brings tears to my eyes:
The most beautiful churches in Kyiv – WHAT IS UKRAINE
With the passing of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen Buddhist monk and peace campaigner who brought mindfulness to the West, the world has lost another mentor. Every time we lose someone who helps us live and act in accordance with our highest good, it is a tremendous loss to the world. Martin Luther King. Nelson Mandela. Bishop Desmond Tutu. Thich Nhat Hanh. Orest Bedrij. Although they are no longer on this earthly plane, their inspiration lives on.
Mentors are very important to me. They inspire me to be better in every way. I celebrate their life, I praise their presence and spirit, and I integrate their teachings into the core of my being, so that I can become what God intended me to be.