It’s the In-Between Time, Stupid

It’s the In-Between Time, Stupid

Today’s guest blogger, Joe McHugh, is a spiritual director, retreat leader, teacher, and writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the National Catholic Reporter. His book, Startled by God: Wisdom from Unexpected Places, will be published by Franciscan Media in September 2013. He can be contacted at

A parable made real

When I was in my mid-twenties, I made a directed retreat with a Jesuit who taught me as an undergraduate. He was a brilliant, provocative American literature teacher who habitually filled up every square inch of blackboard space with indecipherable scribbling when he taught—probably more therapy than teaching device.

He thought hard about his faith and could easily give the impression of being dismissive of most traditional forms of spiritual practice. But there was a fierceness in religious desire I found compelling and attractive.

About halfway through the retreat, he told me, “Spend tomorrow with the parable of the mustard seed.”

“That’s it,” I thought, “one day with one story about seeds?”

I took it as a challenge, so next day I read the parable over and over, trying to figure out what I was supposed to get out of it. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to get out of it, and I came up empty.

The next day he asked, “So what about the mustard seed?”

I made a couple of stabs in the direction of piety, but I had to admit: “I don’t get it.”

“Joseph,” he said, “did you ever think living in God’s reign isn’t about the seed at the beginning or the shrub at the end, but what happens in between? God comes to us as growth born of change, conversion, surrender.

Grace, I started to learn that day, is less a “thing” and more a “process” in our growth from our in-between places.


Photo: Sanjay Acharya/Wikimedia Commons


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  • Davik Kay

    The blackboard got my attention, Joe. My Organic chemistry teacher daily raced through hundreds of formulas on the board while talking about theory, only stopping occasionally to ask the name of the compound formed by the formulas. For weeks he continued this tirade.
    Then one day, he spent the entire hour feverishly scrawling out a series of connected formulas. At the end, even the genius in the class was stumped to name the compound: HIOAg (H=hydrogen, I=iodine, O=oxygen, and Ag=silver)
    At the bell, the professor yelled, “Hi O Silver, and away” as he ran out the door.

  • Davik Kay

    My chemistry teach spent the whole hour writing connected formulas on the board then asking us to name of the compound formed: HIOAg, As the bell rang he ran from the room shouting, ” Hi O Silver, and away.”