All Saints' Day / Sunday

have mercy, I'm purifying

On Interstate 71, as you travel through Ohio between Columbus and Cincinnati, you encounter an interesting billboard.  You see signs like this in other parts of the country, as well.  I remember when we lived in Corning.  Approaching from the east on I-86, there was another interesting sign.  (I presume it’s still there.)  Perched on a hill, it proclaimed, “Jesus is the answer.”  Banu and I once wondered, “I guess that would depend on the question.”

If you haven’t already figured this out, the sign on I-71 involves religion.  On one side, we’re asked, “If you died today, where would you spend eternity?”  Not to put too fine a point on it, I hope that no one, pondering that question to the point of distraction, crashed their car and wound up meeting their Maker!  The other side of the billboard has a list of the Ten Commandments.

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Besides appearing on billboards around the country, we also see the Ten Commandments posted on all manner of things.  But I wonder about that.  Why do we see the Ten Commandments so frequently in public places, but not the Beatitudes of Jesus?  At least, I’ve never seen them.  If I’m correct, why would it be we so rarely see them posted in public?

Is it possible that we’re more comfortable with rules to follow?  That is, with “do”s and “don’t”s?  It should be pointed out, there are levels of meaning in the Ten Commandments.  We do an injustice to them when we reduce to them to a “how to” manual.  They truly present another vision of reality, one that actually is freedom.

Still, it seems like we can more easily get our head around instructions.  Too often it’s, “Please, just tell me what to do!”  I’ve often heard people speak of the entire Bible as rules to live by.

With the Beatitudes of Jesus, we have something very different.  They aren’t instructions; Jesus isn’t telling us what to do.  They aren’t commands; they’re descriptions.  He’s giving us a series of people with qualities who have a blessed life.  (“Blessed” is what the word “beatitude” means.)

If Jesus isn’t laying down the law with the Beatitudes, but rather describing who is blessed, what do we make of them?  Let’s take a look.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (v. 5).  Really?  The meek will inherit the earth?  That’s not what the action movies tell us.  Is Batman meek?  Is James Bond meek?  What does our economy say?  Here’s the next shiny, pretty thing.  Grab it before somebody else does!  Yeah, inherit the earth.  It’s more likely that the meek will inherit jack squat!

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“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (v. 9).  Well that sounds very nice and good, but when the times get tough, we tend to put our trust in bombs and bullets.

And don’t get me started on “those who are persecuted” (v. 10).  Let’s be honest: isn’t it better to be the one calling the shots?

It’s been pointed out that we might prefer some other beatitudes:[1]

“Blessed are the well-educated, for they will get the good jobs.

“Blessed are the well-connected, for their aspirations will not go unnoticed.

“Blessed are you when you know what you want, and go after it with everything you’ve got, for God helps those who help themselves.”

So as we move through the Beatitudes of Jesus, they pretty much go against what we ordinarily would consider to be blessed.

There are nine of these “blessed”s.  I’ll just focus on two: numbers 5 and 6, that is, verses 7 and 8.  “Blessed are the merciful,” and “blessed are the pure in heart.”

Someone whose reflections I have found helpful and enlightening is Cynthia Bourgeault.  She calls herself “a modern-day mystic, Episcopal priest, writer, and internationally known retreat leader.”[2]

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”  She says Jesus is speaking “to the idea of flow.”[3]  She notes “there’s an exchange going on here: we give mercy and we receive mercy.  And this is not coincidental, for the root of the word ‘mercy’ comes from the old Etruscan merc, which also gives us ‘commerce’ and ‘merchant.’  It’s all about exchange.”

We often think of mercy in the context of something we do not do.  We “have mercy” on someone if we don’t punish them.  We are merciful if we refrain from bringing down the hammer on their heads.  And we usually think of God in the same terms.  We pray, “Lord have mercy,” and “have mercy upon us.”

Sometimes it’s an expression of surprise, even a pleasant surprise.  “Lawd, have mercy!”

Still, as we’ve been told, “there’s an exchange going on here: we give mercy and we receive mercy.”  There are acts of mercy.  In this idea of flow, “mercy is not something God has so much as it’s something that God is.”  Mercy is part of God’s very being.  And by extension, when we participate in God’s mercy, it becomes part of who we are.

Bourgeault continues, “Exchange is the very nature of divine life—of consciousness itself, according to modern neurological science—and all things share in the divine life through participation in this dance of giving and receiving.”  We are connected; we are connected by mercy.  When we refuse mercy, we become separated.  We build a wall.  We cut off the flow of life.  We become hardened.  Jesus would have us melt the ice.

Mercy is closely related to forgiveness.  They both have a sense of self-effacement.  They both have a sense of deference.  They both have a sense of respect.

I’ll revisit something I mentioned a couple of weeks ago: political campaigns.  Election Day is upon us.  Can you believe that political differences have brought friendships to ruin?  Imagine.  “I thought we were friends!”  And it’s especially fun when faith enters the arena.  “How can you call yourself a Christian and support that guy?”  (Or support that gal!)  Remember, when the election is over, we still have to live with each other.

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Karen Chamis, our Resource Presbyter, has written about this.[4]  Here’s how a discussion might go: “You can’t vote for A and say you love me.”  “I can vote for A and love you because I’m capable of doing both.”  “No, you can’t vote for A, because what A stands for threatens my existence.”

“One party walks away from the friendship shaking their head at how narrow-minded the other is, and the other walks away wondering if they were ever actually seen by this person in the first place…

“Regardless of what the [election] result is, we’ve changed as a nation and there are things we can’t unsee.  We have work to do as the church, not in pretending the divisions don’t exist and worshipping (again) at the idol of niceness, but in building the kin-dom.”

We will all need to engage in a program of forgiving.  We will all need a refresher course in showing mercy.  With God’s help, we can be mercy.  Since this is All Saints’ Day, we’re reminded of that great cloud of witnesses cheering us on—not to mention the saints alive here and now.

Showing mercy, being mercy, flows right into the next beatitude.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”  That’s a blessing like none other: they will see God.

What is purity of heart?  Too often, it has been limited to discussions of being virtuous, of being moral—especially sexually moral.  There is another place in which this purity is addressed.  James 4 says, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.  Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (v. 8).  You can see the focus here.  A pure heart, a clean heart, is not divided.  It is single.

The New Jerusalem Bible puts it in this light: “The nearer you go to God, the nearer God will come to you.  Clean your hands, you sinners, and clear your minds, you waverers.”  More so than any other epistle, St. James’ has the theme of teaching wisdom.  Clearing one’s mind, avoiding wavering, is a sign of wisdom.  There is a flow that can be detected.

Maybe you will notice how “heart” and “mind” are used interchangeably.  The heart is not simply emotion, and the mind is not simply intellect.  There is a unity of wisdom.

When a heart is purified, there is a burning away of chaff, of debris, of residue.  There is a focus on what is clear, what is lucid, what is holy.  Too often, our minds, our hearts—at least, it’s true with mine—run to and fro in a helter-skelter fashion.  There is a sense of being torn.  Sometimes, it can be paralyzing.

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Again, here’s Cynthia Bourgeault.  “This Beatitude is not about sexual abstinence; it’s about cleansing the lens of perception.”[5]  I’m reminded of a line from the poet William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”[6]

Perhaps that is what it means to see God.  Can we see God in others?  Can we see God in those folks with whom we disagree, indeed, even strongly disagree?  I remember someone I knew years ago when I attended the Assemblies of God college in Florida.  He reflected on his approach when dealing with somebody who didn’t like him.  He brought to mind that “Jesus Christ died for him.”  That might be helpful.

Showing mercy, being mercy, frees the way for clearing our minds, for purifying our hearts.  We need that among us, more than we know.

Have mercy, I’m purifying.

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2203

[2] cynthiabourgeault.org

[3] cac.org/be-merciful-2017-04-19

[4] karenchamis.blog/2020/10/28/scruples

[5] cac.org/be-whole-hearted-2017-04-20

[6] from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”


scary monsters

Over a timespan of about fifteen years, I had a recurring dream.  I might even call it a nightmare.  It involved McDonald’s, where I worked when I wasn’t away at college.  In the dream, I would be at various locations.  I might be at home, or maybe I’d be driving my car.  And in the back of my mind was this nagging fear that I should be at work; I should be at McDonald’s.

In the dream, it was always the case that it had been days, even weeks, since I’d showed up for work.  I would have the feeling that I needed to go to the store and check the schedule.  Was I in fact supposed to be there?  But I don’t remember ever making that trip.  Instead, I would wake up and realize, with a great sense of relief, that I was now at seminary, or later on, that I was now pastor of a church.

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I haven’t had that nightmare for a long time now.  Banu once told me that I was subconsciously expressing my fear of working at McDonald’s for the rest of my life.  I believe there’s something to that!  At a deeper level, though, I think McDonald’s represented my sense of not moving forward.  It was a symbol of my feeling being trapped.

I say that because, after graduating from college, I worked there for over two years before going to seminary.  No doubt reflecting my Pentecostal influences, I was dead set on waiting for God to speak to me, to tell me what to do.  Lord, please give me a sign!  Give me a dream; give me a vision of what I need to do!

Please note, I’m not blaming the Pentecostals for my wrong-headed understanding.  That’s on me!

And of course, all the while, the Lord had implanted within me the calling that I needed to follow.  But I was resistant!

Maybe I would have been satisfied with what we see in the reading in Daniel.  We’re told that Daniel has a dream.

Starting with chapter 7, the last part of the book of Daniel is what’s known as apocalyptic literature.  (The word “apocalyptic” literally means a “revelation” or an “uncovering.”)  The book of Revelation is in that category.  (Surprise!)  Apocalyptic books are like movies with all kinds of weird special effects: dream worlds, cosmic calamities, and yes, scary monsters.

It’s been said, “One could say, calmly and rationally, that the world is a bleak and dangerous place, or one could make the point more fully and dramatically through apocalyptic fantasy.  The latter…will more quickly trouble and terrify us (as they did for Daniel), which is the point.”[1]

Think about it.  Even though the parables of Jesus and apocalyptic images aren’t exactly the same thing, they do serve similar purposes.

For example, Jesus could talk about grace and give us a definition.  He could call it “a free gift” or “an undeserved reward.”  He could do that, or he could tell a story about it—say, a story about a son who asks for his inheritance, shames the family, goes abroad and squanders the money, and after all that foolishness, after all those mistakes, is welcomed home with a lavish banquet.

I ask you, which of those makes a bigger impression?  Which one helps you to better understand grace?

And going back to those delightfully scary images, what would become of horror movies?  A documentary-style warning about the hazards of traveling alone on dark roads in the forest just doesn’t get the juices flowing.

So, even though apocalyptic language can be troubling and terrifying, that’s not the end of the story.  These images of mighty angels and stormy seas really do tell the story of God’s people being delivered from the foul beasts that would keep them down.  And those “foul beasts” are typically of the two-legged variety, the ones who walk around upright.

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The reading in Daniel has been chopped up.  Verses 4 to 14 have been deleted.  The Old Testament is often dissected to suit the purposes of the church.  It being a text for All Saints’ Day, the lectionary zeroes in on verse 18.  “[T]he holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.”  Those holy ones are the saints!

Still, we need to pay attention to the dream—or should we say nightmare?  Daniel seems to think so.  Look at the way the chapter ends in verse 28: “I was so frightened that I turned pale, and I kept everything to myself” (Good News Bible).  He was so scared that he looked like he’d seen a ghost (and he probably soiled himself).  And he wasn’t going to tell anyone about it.

He sees four great beasts rising from the sea.  In ancient Hebrew thinking, the sea was a symbol of chaos.  Who knows what’s down there?  This is a symbol that is primordial.  It goes back to the chaos at creation.  This is “darkness [covering] the face of the deep” (Gn 1:2).  So, toss in the tempest, and you really do have some chaos!

There’s some question as to which kingdoms the four beasts symbolize.  People pick among the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans.  The point is, all these empires in one way or another persecuted the Jews, the people of God.  Or in apocalyptic terms, they’re scary monsters that tried to gobble up the holy ones.

John Collins says that “the vision functioned to give hope to the persecuted Jews.  This rather trite statement, however, does scant justice to the power of the vision, which attempts to shape a whole new view of history.”[2]  Daniel’s vision shapes a whole new view of history.

It can be difficult for us to realize how powerful this is.  Imagine the audacity of this powerless group of people.  They’re just one nation among many that have been swept up by the empire.  How dare they show this holy defiance?  How dare they tell their own stories?  They’re supposed to agree with the official version of history, one that lets them know they’re less worthy, one that puts them in their place.

As the church, we have inherited that legacy.  Still, we have to watch ourselves.  We have to be careful about how closely we identify with the qualities of, not Greek or Roman, but American empire.  Believe it or not, we aren’t immune to acting like the rest of the human race.  We too can imitate a beast ready to devour.

We have here the story of that great cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1).  It’s the story of the faithful from every walk of life.

It’s the story told in the hymn, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.”  Referring to the saints, the second stanza ends like this: “And one was a soldier, and one was a priest, / And one was slain by a fierce wild beast: / And there’s not any reason, no, not the least, / Why I shouldn’t be one too.”

Yes, that’s right folks.  There’s not any reason why I shouldn’t be slain by a fierce wild beast!

3 dnThis is the story of saints past and present—and we can say, of saints yet to come.  It’s the story of the faithful from every background.  It’s the story of those who have faced all manner of scary monsters.  (Even one symbolized by a fast food restaurant!)

Here are some questions for us.  What are our scary monsters?  Are there any great beasts that fill our dreams with terror?

In a sermon Banu preached one time, she dealt with Goliath the giant.  A quote from her sermon was, “When you focus on your giants, you stumble.  When you focus on God, your giants tumble.”  How does that translate into scary monsters?  How do scary monsters come at us?

Here’s another way of framing it.  Are we trapped by the past?  Do we carry around undeserved guilt?

Chris Gehrz speaks of All Saints’ Day as a call and opportunity “to be a steward of the past.”[3]  We’re called to be stewards of the creation, not only in space, but also in time.  All Saints’ Day “underscores the importance of preserving [the] past against the erosion that comes with the passage of time.”  We are called to remember—and to remember well.

This may come as a shock, but there are those who like to zap us by unfairly reminding us of our past.  They would have us remember, but not remember well.  Still, I fear that at some level, that tendency resides within all of us.  But to the extent we give way to that tendency, we only speak from our own fear, our own insecurity.  We are not speaking—and being—from a place of love and hope.

In Christ, those voices of accusation are silenced.  In the face of the glory of Christ, they have nothing to say.

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[pixabay.com]

In Christ, the great beasts, the scary monsters, are rendered toothless.  We’re given a whole new view of history.  We are ushered into the communion of saints, the holy ones of the Most High, who we join in receiving the kingdom and possessing the kingdom forever and ever.

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=714

[2] John J. Collins, Daniel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 324.

[3] www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2016/11/all-saints-day-and-the-stewardship-of-the-past


to see and know Christ

James Finley, the spiritual teacher and mystic, tells us “there’s a story about someone who’s in hell, and he can get out of hell if he can make the Devil cry.  What he does is he gives the Devil a mirror, and when the Devil sees himself, he cries.  And the tears of the Devil put out the fires of hell.”[1]

1 saintsI begin with that rather abrupt story, because it says something about image, what we behold.  It says something about self-image, which in the devil’s case, leads to sorrow.  And to continue with the well-known ending, “wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

That little story says something about what we focus on, what occupies our attention—what occupies our lives.  But we’ll look at that later on.

The epistle text for today, All Saints’ Sunday, is 1 John 3:1-3.  It speaks of pleasant stuff, but it leaves out the rest of the passage.  It leaves out the troublesome, the uncomfortable stuff.  And as I think I’ve said before, when I see those omissions in the lectionary readings, I can’t simply ignore them.  It can be too easy for us to whip out our scissors, and go, “snip, snip, snip.”  We can’t pretend those verses don’t exist.

Having said that, let’s start with the assigned verses.  “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are” (v. 1a).  Love is one of the key themes in this letter and also in the gospel of John, who probably isn’t the same John we see here.

This love is not the kind we see on the Hallmark Channel.  This love is the stuff pervading the universe; it holds the cosmos together.  There’s something “quantum physical” about it.  There is also an awareness, or perhaps, pure awareness.  And it is that awareness which calls for and longs for all of us, that is, everything we are.  You know, having thought about it, the romantic love we see on the Hallmark Channel does tap into the love filling the universe.

Divine love makes us children of God, which the world doesn’t understand.  “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him” (v. 1b).  In the New Testament, the term “world” often has a different meaning than simply referring to planet Earth.  The “world” is a system; it’s almost like something in the air which is hostile to God and to God’s people.  It doesn’t understand—and in fact rejects, sometimes viciously—what the eyes of faith see.

I can remember a time when I made excuses (and they were excuses) for not following the path Jesus had laid out for me.  I pointed to TV evangelists who debased the gospel for the sake of fundraising.  I tried all kinds of ways to explain why church and the Christian faith weren’t for me.

2 saintsI say that in order to say this.  Like many others who have had conversions as adults, I had friends with whom I did … stuff.  And then, I started bringing up subjects about which they had very little interest.  They humored me for a while, but when we realized I was serious about it, we found our common interests fading away.  I began looking through, and appreciating for the first time in my life, the eyes of faith.

The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.

Here’s the first part of verse 2: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.”  I like how Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message.  “But friends, that’s exactly who we are: children of God.  And that’s only the beginning.  Who knows how we’ll end up!”

I imagine many of us can relate to that.  Who knows how we’ll end up?  We are still on the way.

Here’s what John says about it.  “What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (v. 2b).  And again, Peterson: “What we know is that when Christ is openly revealed, we’ll see him—and in seeing him, become like him.”

So we’re back to this business of seeing.  It’s the devil peeking into the mirror and recoiling in terror.  Is it the utter lack of love which causes such fright and bitter disappointment?

I said earlier the lectionary leaves out verses 4 to 10.  Maybe we can understand why.  When we read stuff like, “No one who abides in him sins,” “Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil,” and “Those who have been born of God do not sin,” we might be excused for taking a moment of pause (vv. 6, 8, 9).

One writer, reflecting on this message, concludes it is “a disquieting thought.”[2]  Disquieting indeed.  It’s almost like joining the devil with that peek in the mirror.  Horrifying!

There are some folks who do something interesting with the idea of sanctification.  To sanctify is to set apart, to make holy.  Truly abiding in Christ results in sanctification.  It means being set free from the power of sin.  It means adopting a new nature.

Some of those folks I mentioned say being set free from sin’s power equates to not sinning.  Some people say it’s possible to be sanctified enough so that you never sin.  There are some who claim to have arrived at that point.  They will tell you, “I do not sin anymore.”

However, there is a slight problem.  Remember our call to confession today.  “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  That’s from chapter 1 of today’s letter (vv. 8-9).

Being set free from sin’s power unfortunately does not mean we no longer sin.  Our sin is a sign of our weakness.  For some strange, bizarre reason, we keep holding on the power of sin.  We’re extremely reluctant to have those chains broken!  That’s why salvation is an ongoing process.

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Still, as much as we would like to, we can’t ignore the verses setting up a zero-tolerance philosophy.

Consider the last part of verse 6, referring to Christ: “no one who sins has either seen him or known him.”  That seems to be an open and shut case!  Again, here’s Peterson.  “No one who lives deeply in Christ makes a practice of sin.  None of those who do practice sin have taken a good look at Christ.  They’ve got him all backward.”

The idea here is we’re looking at habitual sin—sin in which we constantly indulge.

Still, it feels to me like we’re too easily dismissing John’s point.  We’re too eager to take the easy way out in order to resolve conflicted feelings.  But maybe having those conflicted feelings is how it should be.  Dealing with the power of sin should not be thought of as easy!

How about verse 8?  “Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning.  The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.”  Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil.  Yikes!

I want to ask something I would guess you’ve never heard in a sermon.  Do we worship the devil?  (Granted, that’s not a typical All Saints’ Day question!)  In posing that question, I’m not talking about offering a slain goat as sacrifice, while uttering incantations.  It’s something a little more nuanced.

We can think of the devil as lord of this world, with the meaning of “world” as that which is impermanent, illusionary, counterfeit—promising something we already have.  Do we foolishly hold on to that?

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“God loves people who throw bedpans. God loves people who don’t.” (James Finley)

The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.  William Loader says, “The language of destroying the works of the devil is talking about dealing with what does not come from love.”[3]  The devil is incapable of love.  We can think of worshiping the devil, being a child of the devil, if our lives do not demonstrate love.

But we need help in doing that.  All by ourselves, we can’t let the love flow.

Someone I really like is the priest and paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who lived in the first half of the 20th century.  He saw love at literally the heart of all things.  Here’s a prayer in which he confesses his failure to love:

“My God, I admit that for a long time I have been and still am [regrettably], unwilling to love my neighbor…  My God, make it so that I reflect your face to the lives of others…  Jesus, Savior of human activity, to whom you bring a reason to act, Savior of human suffering to whom you bring a value to life, be the salvation of human unity by forcing us to abandon our smallness and, with your support, to venture out onto the unknown ocean of charity,” the unknown ocean of love.[4]

How do we go with the flow of love?  What are ways in which we’re unloving?  On this All Saints’ Sunday, what can we learn from those who’ve gone before?  Is there anyone who comes to mind who’s been a source of that wisdom, someone who has seen and known Christ?

God even loves children of the devil, we who are saints and sinners.

5 saintsHere’s James Finley again, who says, “imagine your issues: you have a temper, all your life you struggle with your temper, and your last act on this earth is, you throw a bedpan and you die.  So you say: this is regrettable.  And it is regrettable, because you could hit somebody.  And you’re hoping for a better exit.  But the mystical insight is that God loves people who throw bedpans.  God loves people who don’t.”[5]

When we see and know Christ, bedpan-throwers and nonbedpan-throwers alike, we join in that number of the great cloud of witnesses.  And we will sing:

“Oh when the Saints go marching in / When the Saints go marching in / O Lord, I want to be in that number / When the Saints go marching in.

“We are traveling in the footsteps / Of those who’ve gone before / But we’ll all be reunited / On a new and sunlit shore.

“Oh when the Saints go marching in / When the Saints go marching in / O Lord, I want to be in that number / When the Saints go marching in.”

 

[1] Christopher McCauley, “Thomas Merton as Spiritual Director, Teacher, and Mystic: An Interview with James Finley” Presence 21:2 (June 2015): 11.

[2] Robert M. Brusic, “A River Ride with 1 John: Texts of the Easter Season,” Word & World 17/2 (1997): 215.

[3] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/BEpEaster3.htm

[4] in André Dupleix, 15 Days of Prayer with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Liguori, MO:  Liguori Publications, 1999), 31.

[5] Christopher McCauley, 10.