Illuminating Families: Introduction

Illuminating Families collage - Barbara intro

The Synod of Bishops on the Family is coming up in October. During the synod, our Seeing the Word blog will offer a series of weekly reflections called “Illuminating Families” to help guide conversations in your home and Church gatherings. 

Introduction by Dr. Barbara Sutton

Let us pray….

Today the Church, in homes and parishes throughout the United States have been asked to take part in a worldwide day of prayer for the upcoming extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family.  And so we pray with the eyes of faith through the way of beauty for families and those who shepherd them. We join our prayers with the prayers of the Bishops:

  • Jesus, Mary and Joseph, in you we contemplate the splendor of true love, to you we turn with trust.
  • Holy Family of Nazareth, grant that our families too may be places of communion and prayer, authentic schools of the Gospel and small domestic churches.
  • Holy Family of Nazareth, may families never again experience violence, rejection and division: may all who have been hurt or scandalized find ready comfort and healing.

How might families join their prayers with the Synod process?  Some may choose to pray the rosary each day.  Building on that ancient prayer, I write to encourage families to pray with and for one another during this synodal process.  Turn to one another.  Allow the prayers of families throughout the world to ignite the pastoral imaginations of the Church universal.  The Christian family is the first community called to announce the Gospel to the one who is brought into this world and brought to full human and Christian maturity.

Our homes are often marked by some kind of small shrine that honors the family and past generations.  Most notable is the collection of family photos parading down the hallway over the mantel.  Others will have a treasure chest that holds memorabilia of years past:  pictures; graduation certificates; notices about marriages, births, and adoptions; memories of first footsteps and first words; and souvenirs from proms, college, military service, or first jobs.  Some homes over the past decade have included The Saint John’s Bible as part of their treasure chest in order to reflect the family story through God’s story.

I am reminded of a story of a little girl who was in a class to prepare her for the reception of the sacrament of Eucharist. She was asked by her teacher if she believed in God.  The child quickly responded, “Yes, I do!”  “Well,” said the teacher, “why do you believe in God?”  The answer was a little slower this time, “I don’t know why,” the child finally said.  “I think it runs in our family.”

This story articulates what our Church has written about the family in many of its documents.  One of its most provocative statements comes from Lumen Gentium, which refers to the family as the domestic church and parents as pastors of the domestic church.  They are, according to Lumen Gentium, “… by word and example, the first heralds of the faith with regards to their children.”  In the National Catechetical Directory, this is further explained as, “Parents are the first and foremost catechists of their children.  They catechize informally, but powerfully by example and instruction.”

The nuclear family model is deeply embedded in our culture and recent history. However, we know, simply by looking around our churches and communities that other family models have emerged—grandparents raising children, single parent families, blended families, foster families, adoptive families, intentional communities who share household resources to name a few. It is true that any of these assembled families can face difficulties and loss while at the same time follow the way of beauty, a way of love grounded in Gospel love. This love is determined by relationships in and among people rather than the common household structure for a “Father Knows Best” television comedy (which portrayed a middle class family life in the Midwest.)

The household of God, the Trinity, gives us a lens for familial right relationships that emphasize compassion, justice and ethics. Each generation of a family is challenged to leave the world a more beautiful and beneficial place than it inherited (Follow the Way of Love, USCCB, 1994).  What might this world be like as families live into the way of love, the way of beauty?  Compassion recognizes the interdependence of all living things.  The family is a compassionate community because it cares for the most vulnerable ones in our midst—children, persons with disabilities, and the elderly.  As a compassionate community, the family learns how to suffer with one another and to dignify all aspects of the human situation by kind and gentle care.  It responds with tenderness to the least fortunate or most vulnerable in its membership without blaming them, humiliating them, or diminishing their identity.  Justice preserves the integrity of the individual family members and family unity.  Just families will regard other families with needs and desires equal to their own.

As families grow in holiness and in their relationships with one another, we are able to mirror the divine communion; reaching beyond ourselves in love and hospitality.

Let us begin anew…

I encourage you to make God’s Word ever present in your homes. During the Synod on the Family in October, our Seeing the Word blog will offer a series of reflections for families. Use our “Illuminating Families” series to guide conversations at home and in your Church gatherings.

Catechetical Sunday Reflection on Forgiveness

DinnerAtThePhariseesHouse blog

By Jessie Bazan

Forgiveness is messy.

How often do I say, “It’s no problem; don’t worry about it,” to a person who’s hurt me — and not really mean it? I’ll make amends with my words, but my heart isn’t always as quick to catch up. It’s like getting a grass stain on a favorite pair of pants. You can wash and bleach, but it takes a while for that tarnished spot to go away.

Hurt can change our fabric — but it doesn’t have to ruin it.

The story of the dinner at the Pharisee’s house shows that infinite good can come from a mess. At the feet of Jesus lies a woman whose sins are well known. This illumination appropriately depicts her with a vibrant clash of colors. Her life is chaotic, and she brings that chaos into the Pharisee’s home. She brings her chaos to Jesus.

And he forgives her.

Illuminated in divine gold are the words, “Her sins which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.”  Christ is in the thick of the illumination, balancing the tensions of the dining room scene with the reverence of the woman.

The merciful love of Christ is made known in the mess. It cuts through the hurt.

It weaves our tattered fabric anew.

Jessie Bazan is a Master of Divinity candidate at Saint John’s School of Theology-Seminary and serves as the Seeing the Word graduate assistant.

Dinner at the Pharisee’s House, Donald Jackson, Copyright 2002, The Saint John’s Bible, Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota USA. Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

Labor Day Reflection on Calling

sowercutoutBy Jessie Bazan

A 2013 Gallup poll on workplace engagement found that only 13% of employees worldwide are psychologically committed to their jobs. The majority of employees (63%) fall into the “not engaged” category.

Why is that?

In too many places, jobs are so scarce that people will take anything just to survive, even if it doesn’t bring much fulfillment. Being able to find meaningful work is a luxury. But I also wonder if part of the issue goes beyond what we do from 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Such disengagement may stem from not being in tune with our broader callings.

In “A Life at Work: The Joy of Discovering What You Were Born to Do,” Thomas Moore defines calling as “a sensation or intuition that life wants something from you” (17). Life wants something – but what?! Should I go back to school? Should I get a job as a painter or a dentist? Am I feeling pulled towards married life or might my gifts be better suited in a religious community? What if many options feel right in my heart? What if none of them do?

Making sense of our callings isn’t always easy. There are so many questions, so many different directions we could turn. Often, there are conflicting feelings, too.

I see this web of callings represented in the Sower and the Seed illumination. I like to think of each seed as one of our callings. Blue jean-clad Jesus is tossing out quite a few seeds on these pages! The Labor Day holiday offers a good time to reflect on the seeds Jesus is planting in our own lives.

  • Are we taking the time to tend to and reflect on our callings — all of them?
  • Which callings bring us the most joy — callings to careers, relationships and ways of living?
  • Which callings planted in rocky soil may be time to let go of?
  • How are we glorifying God through our callings?

Jessie Bazan is a Master of Divinity candidate at Saint John’s School of Theology-Seminary and serves as the Seeing the Word graduate assistant.

© Sower and the Seed, Donald Jackson and Aidan Hart with contributions from Sally Mae Joseph, 2002 The Saint John’s Bible, Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota.

Peter’s Confession

PetersConfession blogBy Jessie Bazan

“And so I say to you, you are Peter,
and upon this rock I will build my church,
and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”

— Matthew 16:18

In the illumination of Peter’s Confession, my eyes are drawn to the lower left of the page, where blue scrawls canvas the fiery orange hue. It is the artist’s depiction of a modern-day experience of hell. These are not random strokes. Together, they form a microscopic view of the AIDs virus.

This week, I can’t help but think of what else could be depicted.

The idiom “all hell breaks loose” doesn’t seem far from reality these days. Violence is plaguing communities around the world, from Ferguson, Missouri to Libya and Iraq. Its pain hit particularly close to home on Tuesday, when a fellow Marquette University alumnus was brutally murdered nearly two years after being kidnapped in Syria. Journalist James Foley and countless other innocent victims are losing their lives to violence every day.

My rational mind can’t make sense of any of it, so I turned to art — not for answers, but for comfort.

See the area to the right of the horse’s head where the gold intersects the fiery hue? That miniscule mix of color gives me hope.  It shows me Christ is not removed from this modern-day vision of hell.

He’s right there in it.

This illumination reminds me that Christ is with us through our own experiences of suffering. He’s with us through the violence. He’s with us through the grief and confusion. Christ is alive in our broken world, a constant sign that the evils of today will never prevail against God’s loving kingdom.

With Christ as our rock, let’s pray for peace.

Jessie Bazan is a Master of Divinity candidate at Saint John’s School of Theology-Seminary and serves as the Seeing the Word graduate assistant.

Peter’s Confession, Donald Jackson, Copyright 2002, The Saint John’s Bible, Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota USA. Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

By: Jessie Bazan

Things are going to be radically different. The lowly lifted up? The rich sent away empty? In today’s Gospel reading for the Solemnity of the Assumption, we’re told of a new way of being. This is life where the hungry are fed and the poor are never left behind. This is life where mercy — not money — sustains. This is reality where social norms are broken and the world is better for it.

This reality is the kingdom of God.

It’s fitting that we learn about this radically different vision from a quite unconventional source. As a young, pregnant woman, Mary probably didn’t scream authority at first glance. She’s delivering the Magnificat while hanging out in the hill country with her cousin, for gosh sakes! Yet, it is Mary who speaks emphatically about the strength of the Lord. It is Mary who humbly shares about her role in salvation history. It is Mary who talks intimately about the mercy and compassion of God, whose strength and loyalty has no match. The visionary is radical. The vision, even more. And that’s good, because there’s still work to be done.

Mary’s insights offer great motivation for us today and every day. How are we promoting justice for all? In what ways do our actions magnify the Lord and further the work of his kingdom? Mary, Mother of God, pray for us!

Jessie Bazan is a Master of Divinity candidate at Saint John’s School of Theology-Seminary and serves as the Seeing the Word graduate assistant.

Magnificat, Sally Mae Joseph, Copyright 2002, The Saint John’s Bible, Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota USA. Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

The Sower and the Soil

At the very end of his Rule, St. Benedict encourages his followers, in an almost throwaway line— about the need to continue reading and studying. It is one of the best examples of being told about preparing to open up to the new. Benedict called this opening up to the new conversatio morum which is described as conversion of manners—an openness to continual conversion and ongoing transformation.

Conversatio morum is not a special project of self-transformation, or a course, special event, or liturgy that you will take or attend this summer…it is not a setting aside a time to “work on yourself”…rather it is a process of letting change come quietly and invisibly on the inside. It is a place from which this interior journey begins—breaking open new worlds, asking new questions, and unveiling new vistas. It may be taking the same path day after day, and seeing with fresh eyes or listening with the ear of your heart for the lilt in the landscape of the ordinary. It may simply be, as poet Marilyn McEntyre writes that you see a blaze of light in every word! That you actually see a word rather than look through a word –as you would look through a window or discover a word because of its pungency, its sharpness or smoothness…or even for the sting it gives rather than reading just one more word in series of pages needed to complete a reading assignment. How would our lives be different if we see a blaze of light in every word!

Almost twenty years ago artist Donald Jackson’s questioned, the monks of Saint John’s Abbey asking, “Do want to see the Word of God dance on a page?”. That question is still alive today. I reflect on this illumination—the Sower and the Seed with you today, I am taking artistic liberty and renaming this illumination The Sower and the Soil.


So many of Jesus’ parables and teachings depend upon the wisdom of good agriculture not only because he was speaking to people who tilled fields and tended sheep, but also because sciences such as biology and ecology are sources of divine wisdom and revelation.

Let’s tend to the soil first—in an age of global crises such as resource wars, climate change, and economic meltdown,—some argue that the most urgent crisis is soil depletion. Human life on the planet depends on the health of the few inches of topsoil under our feet. We have not stewarded it very well. The soil is being depleted and eroded. By 1950, the number of tractors went from 0 to three million. Add to this overuse of land, an increase in the production of fertilizers. According to recent statistics, the United States is losing topsoil ten times faster than the natural replenishment rate. The single greatest leverage point for a sustainable and healthy future is underfoot: the living soil where we grow our food.

I discovered at the Natural History Museum in Minneapolis an exhibit called: DIG IT: The Secret of Soil. There I learned that not only had I fallen asleep in my biology classes—but also that in a teaspoon of soil there are more microbes and organisms than people on the earth? It was in this exhibit that I saw a panel of dirt from every state in the union—and each state’s soil was significantly different from the next. How could this not be the work of the Creator, I thought. Soils are alive. They are born, they breathe, they age. Soils are everywhere.

In William Bryan Logan’s remarkable book and now documentary entitled: DIRT: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, he offers a long, reverent reflection on the life of soil. He writes: “There is glamour to the study of rock. The most mysterious place on Earth is right below our feet. How can I stand on the ground every day and not feel its power? How can I live my life stepping on this stuff and not wonder at it?”

I want to shift the focus of the landscape to our interior landscape—our topsoil. We cannot really separate the care of the earth we were given from the care of our bodies, a duty that is, in turn, inseparable from care of our spiritual lives. There is a profound threshold that remains between our exterior and interior landscapes. Am I willing to be hospitable to God—to make room for a deeper encounter with my interior self and the Sower— and emerge to meet the world beyond the self without my protective defenses? To stop myself from being eroded and depleted?

For us, gathered here, perhaps our landscapes may be seen from right to left, rather than the traditional left to right that is usually interpreted in this illumination—from an abundant mound of harvest—great preaching, evangelizing formation programs, and life-changing immersion experiences—created possibly from the mound of depleted soil and thorns of busyness, or a desire to meet every need and to be all things to all people. Perhaps this summer season gives us a chance to pause, in the third mound, to once again listen to the Word for ourselves…for our lives. Sometimes we make the mistake in thinking that because nothing is happening above ground—God is not doing anything, and more uncomfortable might be the notion that it may look like I am doing nothing. This mound is that deep place where God finds us and we find God. It is not empty space per se; its purpose is to become the space for listening to the Word. We enter into silence and hear God’s conversation and take our proper part in it— And then we join that little bird, picking at the soil, we lift our eyes and heart to follow the one—the One Sower who moves to the edge—to the margin of this illumination…to cast Words that are blazing with light….tending every Word—from the center.

I wonder with you, “What about the center and the edges in our life? How do we come and go—from center to the margin? Are the edges not perhaps the center? Does the center not hold the edge?:

Perhaps it is a reminder of who the Messiah is—and who the soil is—we are the soil—you and I are DIRT—may this summer be a time of renewal so that we can be the ecstatic skin of the Church…that we may go back to the point of return where at the trailhead of that circuitous journey we discover once again the Word illuminated in us!

Barbara Sutton, D.Min.
Associate Dean of Ministerial Formation and Outreach
Saint John’s School of Theology•Seminary, Collegeville, MN

© Sower and the Seed, Donald Jackson and Aidan Hart with contributions from Sally Mae Joseph, 2002 The Saint John’s Bible, Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota.

Seeing Easter: Wisdom, Week 6


For our final Sunday of the Easter season before Pentecost we use the image, the “Sirach Carpet Page”, which closes the Wisdom volume of The Saint John’s Bible.  There is no scripture passage associated with this page, as it marks the end of the entire volume.  However, we see written at the bottom of the page, “She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her: those who hold her fast are called happy.”  We also see a stamp that was prominently used in the illumination “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”.  The colors used are those same colors that we saw in the “Garden of Desire.”  We are brought back to the images, knowledge, and inspiration of the entire volume before this.

“She is a tree of life”.  We have learned a lot about Wisdom from these books and from the Wisdom illuminations.  She was present with creation.  She identifies herself with the voice of the Lord.  People must find her in order to find life and find God.  Wisdom is not God, but she is how we come to know God.  She is the connection between the Lord, and the created world.  Therefore, it makes sense that we see on this final page, the image of a tree and the words that “She is a tree of life.”  Not only was she present since before the creation of the universe, but also she is the link between God and the created world.  It is through her that each of us will be able to find God and create our identity as a people of God.

We leave the Wisdom books with an image of Wisdom as life giving.  And yet, the scattered-ness of the stamp also sends the message that it is hard to grasp at.  We are left being told to embrace life, embrace wisdom, and continue to seek her out in all we do.  As Susan Sink says, “In the end we are encouraged to live, to experience beauty, and always to seek God and God’s partner in creation, Wisdom.” (The Art of the Saint John’s Bible: Wisdom Books and Prophets, 52)



© Donald Jackson, 2002 The Saint John’s Bible, Order of Saint benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota. Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Catholic Edition, © 1993, 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.