Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Peter & Paul: Brothers In the Faith, Brothers In Witness

Christ, the Cornerstone, has built the Church upon apostles and prophets,
O come, let us worship. (Morning Prayer antiphon)

Lord our God, encourage us through the prayers of Saints Peter and Paul.
May the apostles who strengthened the faith of the infant Church
help us on our way of salvation...
(Collect for the Vigil of SS. Peter & Paul, Daily Roman Missal)

In his book Stars In A Dark World, Fr. John Julian, OJN says: "The tradition that Peter and Paul were martyred on the same day is probably the result, rather than the cause, of the common commemoration on June 29 (probably the date of a translation of their remains), for that shared commemoration is very ancient, going back at least to the time of Constantine." The feast itself is very ancient, one of the first included in the sanctoral cycle. Personally, I like the liturgical proper of the Roman Missal for this feast better than the readings from RCL.

The first reading is from Acts 12:1-11, recording Herod's persecution of the early Church leaders and the imprisonment of Peter. You can discern in this reading some elements of Passover. Luke mentions "the feast of Unleavened Bread" and "Passover". The phrases "on the very night" before Peter was to go to trial, and "get up quickly", "Put on your belt and your sandals": the angel's command to Peter as he was released, both hearken back to Exodus. Along with others in jail with him, Peter "not realizing that what was happening through the angel was real", experiences a night of deliverance as he passes through he iron gate and takes off down an alley. Peter is called to undergo an ordeal similar to his Lord's, as well as similar liberation. Peter is a type of the liberated person who is witness to the reality of paschal salvation in the eyes of the community.

In 2 Timothy 4:6-8; 17-18 Paul speaks passionately and soberly to his protegé, Timothy, about his sense of his impending death: "I, Paul, am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand..." He speaks frankly of his having lived faithfully, "I have kept the faith...", and of his complete trust that Christ will take care of all the details of how everything from here on in unfolds. "The Lord will rescue me...and will bring me safe to his heavenly Kingdom."

What we celebrate today is a paschal mystery within the commemoration of the two great early leaders who helped form the Christian community which we know today as "the Church". Their personal martyrdoms ("witness") and liberations are all bound together with the mystery of Christ's body, the Church. Hopefully their example and teaching, as the BCP Collect for the feast says, will help us grasp and appreciate better our role within the Church. At the heart of their message is the mystery or truth of collegiality, of shared responsibility, of our need to be truly a community of concern and action. Perhaps we will even come to the point in our thinking, ultimately, of doing away with the all-too-prevalent "hierarchical pyramid". We need to appreciate that we cannot, as the Church, create unity simply by uniformity in thought and practice.

May we, after the example of our "big brothers", Peter and Paul, be earnest in prayer for the whole Church and equally earnest in boldness in sharing with others the Good News of the Living God! 


Monday, June 28, 2010

St. Irenaeus of Lyons: The Peaceable One

"...The Word became the dispenser of the Father's grace for the benefit of humankind, and for our sake made these generous arrangements: revealing God to us, and raising us to God. In raising us to God, he shields the Father from human sight lest we ever undervalue God through familiarity, and also so that we always have something to strive after. On the other hand, he revealed God to us that we would not fall away and as a result, cease to exist. For the glory of God is a human being fully alive, and the life of humanity consists in the vision of God. Thus if the revelation of God in this world gives life to every living thing, how much more will the revelation of the Father by the Word give life to those who see God..."
(From the treatise Against the Heresies)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The One Sent Ahead

This year, for some reason, I found the Office reading for the eve of the feast of the Nativity of John the Baptizer raised a question. The text is from Luke 1:5-23, where the angel appears to John's father, Zechariah, in the sanctuary, announcing the birth of John. The angel compares the Baptizer to Elijah, saying: "...With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord..." What does that reference to the parents and children mean? It's a repeat of Malachi 4:6, but every commentary I've read either doesn't deal with it or simply refers to the Malachi text. The angel seems to be outlining John's mission: 1) turning parents' hearts to their children, 2) guiding those who don't really "listen" (ob + audire = to really listen), which is what disobedience essentially is, and finally, 3) to get God's people prepared to receive the Messiah. But though the last two items seem to make sense, I find the other one interesting. Why, particularly, would John's mission be to "turn the parents hearts to their children"?

The texts for the Morning Office today offer some quite relevant guides for further meditation, especially the reading from Malachi 3:1-5: "...Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts..." For me that text takes on a great deal of importance, in light of our current pitched battle over immigration and in light of the outrageous new Arizona law. 

Such a text always seems to make it easier for us to point fingers at others, particularly the ones who make the daily news. All of us need to bear in mind that we have feet of clay also. Perhaps the best advice for our daily living, while not fearing to speak the Gospel's truth when and where it applies, is that given by John himself in the Gospel of John 3:30: "...He must increase, but I must decrease..."

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Prayer of St. Thomas More

Prayer of St. Thomas More while imprisoned in the Tower of London awaiting execution:

Give me the grace, Good Lord

To set the world at naught. To set my mind firmly on You and not to hang upon the words of men’s mouths.

To be content to be solitary. Not to long for worldly pleasures. Little by little utterly to cast off the world and rid my mind of all its business.

Not to long to hear of earthly things, but that the hearing of worldly fancies may be displeasing to me.

Gladly to be thinking of God, piteously to call for His help. To lean into the comfort of God. Busily to labor to love Him.

To know my own vileness and wretchedness. To humble myself under the mighty hand of God. To bewail my sins and, for the purging of them, patiently to suffer adversity.

Gladly to bear my purgatory here. To be joyful in tribulations. To walk the narrow way that leads to life.

To have the last thing in remembrance. To have ever before my eyes my death that is ever at hand. To make death no stranger to me. To foresee and consider the everlasting fire of Hell. To pray for pardon before the judge comes.

To have continually in mind the passion that Christ suffered for me. For His benefits unceasingly to give Him thanks.

To buy the time again that I have lost. To abstain from vain conversations. To shun foolish mirth and gladness. To cut off unnecessary recreations.

Of worldly substance, friends, liberty, life and all, to set the loss at naught, for the winning of Christ.

To think my worst enemies my best friends, for the brethren of Joseph could never have done him so much good with their love and favor as they did him with their malice and hatred.

These minds are more to be desired of every man than all the treasures of all the princes and kings, Christian and heathen, were it gathered and laid together all in one heap.


Sunday, June 20, 2010

"What Is Your Name?"

Fr. James Liggett, an Episcopal priest from Texas, gives this colorful assessement of Luke’s Gospel passage (8:26-39): “On one really important level, the story is a hoot – it’s somewhere between a political cartoon and a graphic novel. The whole scene is bizarre. You’ve got a naked crazy guy, chatty demons, charging pigs doing swan dives, tombs, chains, shackles, freaked-out locals, and a small riot. All in Gentile territory where, as far Luke was concerned, Jesus had no business being in the first place.

The folks who first heard this story must have loved it. In addition to the great action and dialogue, there was ancient regional rivalry.
What could be more fun for the good Jews of Galilee to hear than a story about how un-kosher, unlucky, and generally weird the Gentiles on the other side of the lake [the Sea of Galilee] really were; and about how all those unclean pigs came to a well-deserved and hilarious end.

Then there’s the political subtext. Everybody knew instantly both that it was no accident that the demons called themselves ‘Legion’, after the famous and feared Roman legions, or that pigs were a staple of both the Roman army and the Roman economy. Caesar’s legions, and Caesar’s rations, were mere child’s play for Jesus – a quick flush and they’re gone. What fun! And most Romans who heard the story probably wouldn’t even get this part..."

There’s much more in this passage than meets the eye, much more than a quick stop-by healing and a crowd of fearful Gentiles watching Jesus and the disciples casting off, after virtually the whole Gerasene community had asked them to leave.

To understand the story, I’d first ask you to bear in mind that Luke was writing for a man named Theophilus, literally meaning friend of God/beloved of God. He was probably a real person, perhaps a patron, a benefactor interested in the subject matter. Luke addresses him as “most excellent Theophilus”, a title for a high government official, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that the man was of high rank. Whether he was a Christian or not is unknown. Nevertheless, I like to think that the name’s meaning wasn’t lost on Luke, and that he could imagine many future readers and hearers, “friends beloved of God”, for whom the Gospel, and this story, would come to have personal meaning.

The story’s geographical context isn’t entirely clear. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Synoptic Gospels, so called because, in contrast to John, they tend to look at Jesus’ words and actions from a similar viewpoint, all include the core of the story, though with variations, such as where this story took place. Though it’s in the general region, the terrain of Gerasa, roughly midway between the Sea of Galilee in the north and the Dead Sea in the south, doesn’t match well some details in the story. A better guess seems to be the nearby town of Gadara (fence/border), one of the 10 cities of the Decapolis, present-day Umm Qais (mother of Caius, a Roman name.) It’s in modern-day Jordan, just southeast of the Sea of Galilee, very near the Yarmouk River, largest tributary off the Jordan River. In identifying the site as “opposite Galilee”, Luke emphasizes that this is Gentile territory, so we shouldn’t be surprised that here we find elements of tombs, demons, Romans and pigs!

Luke tells us that, upon arriving, Jesus steps off the boat, fresh from battling a huge storm, where, you remember, his disciples cowered and shrieked in fear, and he steps into a new “storm”. “[A] man of the city who had demons met him”. The man was a citizen of Gadara. Apparently he’d been normal, but now “[f]or a long time”, Luke notes, he’d run around naked and was homeless, taking refuge “in the tombs”. Here is a person socially and spiritually adrift: alienated, shunned by his own. A demon(s) had taken over his identity. Luke, within a few sentences, will provide some editorial background: that the demon(s) had seized him, that the Gadarene townsfolk kept him “under guard and bound with chains and shackles”, and that the demon(s) drove him “into the wilds”.

Luke indicates that Jesus had figured out the situation almost immediately, “...for Jesus...commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man...” These cases of demonic possession are difficult, at best, because it isn’t always clear who or what you’re dealing with. Luke sometimes refers to “it” or “he”, sometimes to “they”. So who’s really speaking: the chief demon? the possessed man? or all of the demons?

Robert Hamerton-Kelly, commenting on Mark’s version of this story (5:1-20), in his book The Gospel and the Sacred, makes this observation: “The demoniac is a classic scapegoat figure.” He dwells among the tombs and wanders the wilds, “...always howling,” Mark says, “and bruising himself with stones”. No chains can bind and no man subdue him. The legion of demons by whom he’s possessed are, in effect, his Gadarene fellow citizens, who’ve become the mob persecuting him as the “other”, says Kelly. The possessed man carries his persecutors inside himself in the classic mode of a victim who internalizes his tormentors. In Mark’s version he even mimes the stoning by which he was probably driven out of their community, compulsively afflicting himself with stones and crying out his own rejection. In a mode of self-estrangement, he becomes his own executioner, imitating his persecutors whom the legion of demons mirrors.

How often do we, in fact, like this man, fall victim to our own inner demons: to what other significant people in our lives have convinced us that we are, to the tags and labels we assume for ourselves, to our feelings of unworthiness or shame, or not being good enough, or smart enough, or strong enough: letting these define who we are?

The demonized man, cowering in fear, falls in front of Jesus and “at the top of his voice” asks what Jesus has to do with him, begging Jesus not to torment him. Jesus calmly asks “What is your name?”, which is to say “Who are you...really?” Jesus, through his mysterious gentle presence, in and out of our lives, has a way of constantly posing this question to us, through glimpses here and there, not always clearly defined.

The demonized man answers: “Legion”, from the Latin legio = the heavy infantry which was the basic military unit of the Roman army, numbering between 4200-5200+ men: thus, Luke’s comment “...for many demons had entered him”. Gil Baillie comments: “'Legion' means 'crowd,' 'mob.' This demon's name is Mob. It's an undifferentiated crowd. Who's the constituting Other? Every one of us has a constituting Other -- no doubt, a cluster of constituting Others.

For biblical monotheists, our primary constituting Other is supposed to be the one God; but, instead, we have many Others. This man is crazy because the constituting Other is a Crowd. A lot of moderns are crazy for more or less the same reason. Behind this question, 'What is your name?', is the answer, 'I am the Other,' and the Other is the Crowd. This man is a tool of the Crowd. He is possessed.

In Jesus’ presence the many demons become powerless and “[T]hey begged [Jesus] not to order them to go back into the abyss”, i.e., into the place where evil powers are kept captive for the final judgment, also represented in this story by the waters of the river or lake, in which the pigs soon end up drowning: a symbol of dark depths, turmoil and chaos.

It wasn’t unusual for swine to be grazing in this Gentile area. As Fr. Liggett mentioned earlier, non-kosher pork was a staple of the Roman army and of the Roman economy. For the third time now, Luke depicts the demons “begging” or “beseeching” Jesus, this time to let them enter a nearby herd of swine. “The demons recognize Jesus as their nemesis and try to persuade him not to expel them altogether from the system of violence which exists here, but merely to transfer them from one location to another, thereby managing violence by means of violence within a closed sacrificial system.” (Baillie) Jesus OK’s their request, but only to expel them for good by sending them into the swine, who, contrary to the demons’ expectation, suddenly, inexplicably, rush over the cliff, into the water and drown. The herd of demon-inhabited swine is an eloquent symbol of the Gadarene townspeople in pursuit of a victim, much like the crowd of Jesus’ Nazareth townsfolk, earlier in Luke (4:29), who “...drove him out of the town...so that they might hurl him off the cliff…” In light of Jesus’ commanding presence, the herd's drowning means that violence ceases when the mob disappears. Expectations are reversed, with the mob going over the cliff rather than the scapegoat! The fear-ridden townspeople no longer define the man’s identity. Notice that the swineherds aren't particularly upset about the economics involved. They don't run to Jesus asking him to compensate them for their losses. What really upsets them, and sends them running off to the townsfolk, is the loss of their scapegoat.

From Gadara the news spreads rapidly around the region, and, as so often, in cases of breaking news events, people come out of the woodwork in order to gather and gawk. What they discover strikes fear into them, because their system, their very mode of living together, all that they know, namely, living in fear of being found out, is now threatened. Here’s the “wild” man now sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet, clothed (one wonders who was kind enough to take care of that for him), and “in his right mind”. “And,” Luke says, “they were afraid”.

The witnesses of Jesus’ confrontation with the demons and of the ensuing demise of the herd of pigs tell the gathered crowd, in Luke’s words, “how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed.” Yes, that’s true, and most translations give some variant of that: “healed”, “cured”, “made well”. But that isn’t the word Luke uses in Greek, and only the New American Bible gets it right: the Greek word used is “saved/taken care of”.

Now, you’d expect that what Jesus did would’ve elated the crowd and caused great excitement. This man Jesus had done what no one else had been able to do: to control this man, to settle him down, to drive out the demons, to make him sane again, even to save him! But listen to what Luke records: “Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes/Gadarenes [note: not just the townsfolk] asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.” Gil Baillie says that “the cure to possession is possession”. This man is sitting at the feet of Jesus. The cure is right there. This is what “conversion” looks like. What Baillie calls “a constituting Other” cures people at the core of their being: namely, the Risen Christ.

The man, now sitting in Jesus’ presence, is saner than the rest of the Gadarenes. They come and see the man clothed and in his right mind, and they are afraid. Why? For the same reason as some nations try to keep human rights organizations from entering their countries and confronting them with their scapegoating behaviors. For the same reason that abusive spouses try to keep their victims isolated. For the same reason that pimps control the lives of their sex workers by keeping them poor and addicting them to drugs. For the same reason that we keep even ourselves locked up in despair of our own inner demons. These groups and people realize intuitively that the lynchpin of their whole cultural apparatus is thereby being eliminated. Jesus went right into that Gadarene community, right up to the one who’d been at the heart of their cultural apparatus, and released him, helped him to find the true answer to his question, “What is your name?”.

Again, one would think, "Well, that's a great thing!" But the whole Gadarene community wants Jesus gone, in the same way that those mentioned above want to keep others away and the lid tightly closed. There’s nothing more fear-inducing when you’re stuck in a dysfunctional system than change, and Jesus’ presence brings that about, in aces! Earlier in Luke (2:34-35) Simeon proclaims, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed..." When the Gadarenes ask Jesus to leave, that’s the beginning of the revelation of their “inner thoughts”. They realized, at some level, that Jesus was interrupting and doing away with the social mechanism on which they’d depended. It is in Gil Baillie’s words “a parable for the way the Gospel works in history.

But then there is what Paul Harvey used to call “the rest of the story”. Jesus and the disciples get into the boat to return to Galilee. Before they shove off, it’s the changed man who now “begs” something of Jesus, and it’s a perfectly understandable and reasonable request: “Let me [not just “go with”, but] be with you.” James Finley defines a “seeker” as “a person, who once having caught a glimpse of God, knows that only God will do.” Aside from that, if you were this man, surely you’d want to “get out of Dodge”, too, just to leave behind all these crazy Gadarenes, after all they’d done to make his life miserable! But Jesus, recognizing the true strength and openheartedness of this man, tells him to “[r]eturn to your home [because he, of all people has every right to belong there] and declare how much God has done for you.” By that Jesus means, not only his physical release from the cruel control of demons, nor even just the psychological release from being the town’s scapegoat, but the sheer grace that God, through Jesus, gave him to become a genuinely compassionate human being: even towards his own community which was still unwilling, because unable, to acknowledge their secret fears, even towards a community who were probably still unanimously unaccepting of him as an equal. Luke says, “…[H]e went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.” It’s for God alone to determine where and how your ministry and mine will bring Jesus‘ presence to others.

This week the whole world was buzzing about the recent gaffe of B.P.’s Board Chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, in referring to the “small people” of the Gulf Coast. While I don’t think he probably meant it exactly in the way it was taken, I think the mistake clearly betrays a cultural mindset among some, not unlike that of the Gadarenes in the Gospel, a mindset to which any of us could be susceptible, namely of stereotyping people, like this possessed man, according to how we, from a position of privilege or control, perceive them.

One thing to carry away from today’s Gospel is that compassion for the “other” is the experience of God’s compassionate Presence, in Jesus, manifesting itself in and as our compassion for one another. It is a way, a path of continual spiritual awakening. Notice Jesus’ threefold pattern in this and other miracle stories of the Gospel:

1) Jesus cares enough about someone that he shares in that person’s suffering; feels something of it; makes the person feel that they’re not alone. Jesus calls you and me to an openness to be accessed by others’ suffering. That’s tricky, because how do you and I allow ourselves to be compassionate without drowning in another’s suffering? James Finley once described the situation as like standing outside the circle of another’s suffering. If I’m unwilling to step into the circle, there’s no compassion. The trick is to step into the circle, but to also keep one “foot” outside the circle, firmly planted in That which transcends suffering. I owe this to the other so that the other person can come to trust that my life is grounded in something/Someone which transcends suffering, giving the other the hope that he or she can also experience the same.

2) Jesus loves the person by taking action to deliver her/him from suffering. Genuine compassion, necessarily rooted and grounded in a compassionate love for ourselves, leads us, like Jesus, to engage the other, to be with them in their suffering, to listen, to do whatever we can, all things considered.

3) Even in his smallest act of compassion toward a person, Jesus reflects, manifests the reality of God’s seeing the preciousness of that person: the image of Godself. Our compassion to one another, like Jesus’, must be grounded in recognizing the other’s identity, not as their brokenness, but as the preciousness which God sees in them, the image of Godself. Jesus’ healing of the man possessed by demons, as all his miracles, is a sign of what Finley calls “experiential salvation”. When Jesus came out of the boat and saw the demonized man, what he saw was a preciousness that the man couldn’t even imagine at that point. I think Jesus’ question to him, “What is your name?”, was Jesus’ way of revealing to the man that he was “saved”, i.e., of helping the man to understand that, despite the inner demons which had taken him over, God, in Jesus, sees only the precious image of God. When I believe that I am what’s wrong with me, that brokenness becomes my identity, and then I lose hope. This man had certainly lost hope, and then some! But that was restored the minute he began to see that his identity was the preciousness that Jesus saw in him, the very image of Godself. No wonder that the man wanted to “be with” Jesus!

Compassion, according to James Finley, is love in the presence of suffering. Love sees the image of God in the one suffering and holds the suffering close until it disappears and becomes love. Moments like the meeting of Jesus and the man possessed of demons, moments like we ourselves often experience periodically, whether with ourselves or with others, are “graced moments”, moments of saving and being saved. We never know when they’ll come or through whom they’ll come.

No one can “trash” God’s image in us. We’re created in that image, expressed in the Word, Jesus: “the mystery of God hidden in Christ”, and this is the preciousness, our true identity, which God sees.

Thanks be to God!

A Prayer For Father's Day

Loving and Merciful God, our thoughts and prayers today are turned towards our fathers.

For those whose fathers have increased the joy in their lives, we give you thanks.

For those whose fathers’ presence is greatly missed may we take time to gratefully recall all they have given to us, providing for us in our growing.

For those whose fathers have recently been lost or who are facing the imminent loss of their fathers, may they find comfort in their grief, hope in their despair, courage in the love that their fathers have given them.

We give thanks, God, for the fathers who sustain and support us in our living, who love us no matter what!

We give thanks to you, O God, for all those whose gift for fatherhood is so strong that they have have used your gift to minister to others, providing guidance and stability, nurture and love.

We pray, too, for those men who, for whatever reason, have not been good fathers. We pray, compassionate God, for those whose fathers have been a source of hurt and pain, and have caused them to suffer. 
May their wounds be healed.  May they find in you, in us, in others,
the nurturing and sustaining love which they need for growth and well-being.

We recall with sadness fathers who are separated from their children
through life choices made by them or others. Give them the insight and wisdom, the courage and perseverance to parent in whatever creative
and life-giving ways may be open to them. 

We remember to you single fathers and single mothers who struggle to be both parents to their children -- to provide all the emotional, physical and spiritual needs without the constant support of a spouse or partner. 
May they find the strength, courage and wisdom for their task.

We pray for those fathers whose relationships with their children have
been difficult or disappointing. 

We pray, too, for those who have been denied a chance to be fathers, and for those whose years of parenting have been cut short by the
loss of a child. We turn to You, most holy God, knowing and trusting that you can console where consolation seems impossible.  May these  men receive comfort for their spirit, and peace and hope for living, that their gifts may not be denied to others.

Finally, we rejoice with you, O God, at the many fine men, who in spite of confusing roles and expectations in a rapidly changing society, have taken their place as fathers with open hearts, with willingness and joy.

And we join all fathers everywhere in praying that their children may
be well and happy, and a source of joy for years to come. 

Hear our prayer, Loving Father, and give us always the assurance of your love, that we may in turn bring that love into the lives of others. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"Spiritual Director To Her Generation"

Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) was an English Anglo-Catholic writer and pacifist who, in the English-speaking world, was one of the most widely read writers on  religion and spiritual practice, particularly Christian mysticism, in the first half of the 20th century. No other book of its type at that time met with such success as her best-known work, Mysticism (1911). She re-entered the Church of England in 1921, and soon became an acclaimed retreat conductor and spiritual guide. Her understanding of the mystery of faith is perhaps best expressed in her later book, Worship (1936).

"Worship, in all its grades and kinds, is the response of the creature to the eternal: nor need we limit this definition to the human sphere. There is a sense in which we may think of the whole life of the universe, seen and unseen, conscious and unconscious, as an act of worship, glorifying its Origin, Sustainer, and End. Only in some such context, indeed, can we begin to understand the emergence and growth of the spirit of worship in men and women or the influence which it exerts upon their concrete activities...

...It is possible to regard worship as one of the greatest of humanity's mistakes: a form taken by the fantasy-life, the desperate effort of bewildered creatures to come to terms with the surrounding mystery. Or it may be accepted as the most profound of man's responses to reality; and more than this, the organ of his divine knowledge and the earnest of eternal life..."
(From Celebrating the Saints, Canterbury Press, p. 198)

Monday, June 14, 2010

Basil: The Great Hierarch

Ever go through those times, like me, of frustration with the chaotic pattern of your life?? Periodically I go through this thing of, "Now I really need to get it together...simplify my life...I need to cut back on activities and the things distracting me.

It's refreshing to read something written firsthand by a saint which shows that we have something in common, as happened this morning when I read this portion of a letter which Basil, 29 year old brainiac that he was, wrote to his friend, schoolmate, and theological buddy, Gregory of Nazianzus, later Archbishop of Constantinople. Basil had just been baptized and then ordained a deacon the year before writing this letter. After spending time in Egypt, researching the lives of desert anchorites, Basil moved back to Pontus in Cappadocia, where his sister, Macrina, had established a nunnery. Basil started gathering disciples and founded a men's monastery at Ibora. He and Gregory collaborated on writing The Longer and Shorter Rules, which became the foundation of Eastern monasticism. 

With that as the context, I thought Basil's letter was rather moving:

"...What I do, day and night, in this remote spot, I am ashamed to write to you about. I have abandoned my career in the city because I am convinced that it will only make me further depressed. Within myself, I am still largely unresolved: I am like a traveller on the ocean who has never been on a voyage before and becomes ill and seasick. Such folk moan because the ship is large and has such an enormous swell, and yet the moment they transfer to a smaller boat or dinghy, they are tossed about even more and become violently ill. Wherever they go, they cannot escape from their nausea and depression. My internal state is something like this. I carry my own problems with me wherever I go and there is no escape.

So in the end, I have got very little out of my solitude. What I ought to have done, what would have helped me to walk securely in the footsteps of Jesus who has led me on the path of salvation would have been to have come here long ago. Has not our Lord said: 'If any would come after me, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me?'..."

Though I've never had the pleasure of taking a sea voyage on a ship, I suspect that Basil's image of the varying degrees of seasickness, depending on the craft's size, accurately conveys the sense of the malaise and unease that everyone must feel from time to time. I remember feeling it during the seven years I struggled over the monastic vocation; again, in the early years after ordination, when doubts set in about being a priest; and even now in retirement at times, as I get older and look toward the final days of life. 
Basil's letter continues, with wise advice: "...We must strive for a quiet mind. The eye cannot appreciate an object set before it if its perpetually restless, glancing here, there and everywhere. No more can our mind's eye apprehend the truth with any clarity if it is distracted by a thousand worldly concerns...Solitude offers an excellent opportunity in this process because it calms our passions, and creates space for our reason to remove their influence..." As in football, or other sports, it pays to keep one's eye "on the ball", to be constantly aware of the unum necessarium, the one thing necessary: to remain united with Christ. Therein lies truth and clarity, even if everything else around is falling apart and is in shambles. And though it's nice to be able to have the refuge and solitude of a monastery, as Basil did, for most of us that simply isn't possible. Instead, we're called to go inward, to the deep center of our inner selves, where God abides: the point vierge, as Thomas Merton calls it, the "virginal point".  

As Basil puts it: "...Let there be, therefore, places such as this, where we may pursue such spiritual training without interruption, nourishing our souls with thoughts of God. After all, what can be better than to imitate the choirs of angels, to begin a day with prayer, honoring our Creator with hymns and songs? And as the day brightens, to pursue our daily tasks to the accompaniment of prayers, seasoning our labor with hymns as if they were salt?..."

Thomas Merton's well-known prayer, from his book Thoughts In Solitude, is one which best speaks to my heart in times of spiritual restlessness and confusion: 

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain
where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that
I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am
actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You
does in fact please You. And I hope I have that desire in all that
I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that
desire. And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the
right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I
will trust You always though I may seem to be lost and in the
shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and
You will never leave me to face my perils alone. 

Saturday, June 12, 2010

(Jesus Mafa: Jesus absolves the pentitent sinner, 
from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN)

"'...I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven;
hence she has shown great love.
But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.' Then he said to her,
'Your sins are forgiven...
Your faith has saved you; go in peace.'

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Sacred Heart: God's Word to Us, Our Word to God

(This reflection on the theology of the Sacred Heart is by
Fr. Mark D. Kirby, O.Cist.)

"...The Sacred Heart: God's Word addressed to us

Theology is, first of all, God's word addressed to us. Apply this immediately to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The pierced Heart of the Crucified is God speaking a word to us, a word carved out in the flesh of Jesus' side by the soldier's lance. It is the love of God laid bare for all to see: "God stepping out of his hiddenness".

When we speak of a theology of the Sacred Heart, we mean this first of all: not our discourse about love, but the love of God revealed first to us, the poem of love that issues forth from the Heart of God. This is exactly what St. John, whom the Eastern tradition calls "The Theologian", says in his First Letter: "In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins" (I Jn 4:10).

The difficulty here is that, in order to receive this word inscribed in the flesh of the Word (cf. Jn 1:14), we have first to stop in front of it, to linger there and to look long at the wound made by love. "They shall look on him whom they have pierced" (Jn 19:37). To contemplate is to look, not with a passing glance, but with the gaze of one utterly conquered by love. Jeremiah says, "You have seduced me, O Lord, and I was seduced; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed" (20:7).

The call to be an adorer and an apostle of the Sacred Heart is addressed to every Christian. The apostle is, in essence, the bearer of a word, one sent forth and entrusted with a message. The message that the apostle carries into the world is the one he has learned by looking long with the eyes of adoration at the pierced Heart of the Crucified.

The word of Crucified Love is hard to pronounce — not with our lips but with our lives. Adoration is the school wherein one learns how to say the Sacred Heart. It is in adoration that the apostle receives the word of the pierced Heart that, in turn, becomes his life's message.

Adoration and apostleship together model a spirituality accessible to all Christians: the word received in adoration is communicated in the dynamism of one sent forth with something to say.

The Sacred Heart: Our word addressed to God

Theology is, in the second place, our word addressed to God. Applying this also to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, we see that all we could possibly want to say to God has already been uttered and is being said eternally through the "mouth" of Christ's glorious pierced Heart in heaven. It is through the Sacred Heart that the Blood of Christ speaks "more graciously than the blood of Abel" (Heb 12:24).

The Letter to the Hebrews puts it this way: "Christ is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he lives for ever to make intercession for them" (7:25). Christ exercises his priesthood of intercession in "the inner sanctuary behind the veil" (Heb 6:19) by presenting to the Father the glorious wounds in his hands, his feet and his side. The wound in the side of Christ, "great high priest over the house of God" (Heb 10:21), speaks to the Father on our behalf. It is our word addressed to God.

At the core of devotion to the Sacred Heart is a passing-over into the prayer of Christ to the Father, a long apprenticeship to silence by which we begin to let the Heart of Christ speak in us and for us to the Father.

The mystics of the Sacred Heart, in particular St Gertrude and St Mechthilde, speak of offering the Sacred Heart of Jesus to the Father. This means allowing the Sacred Heart to speak for us, to pray in us, to pray through us, taking comfort in what Scripture says, "that we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Heb 4:15).

This suggests a simple way of praying, one accessible to all: "Lord Jesus, I come to be silent in your presence, trusting that your Heart will speak for me, knowing that all I could ever want to say, that all I would ever need to say, is spoken eternally to the Father by your Sacred Heart".

In this way, everything that prayer can or should express — adoration, praise, thanksgiving, supplication and reparation — finds its most perfect expression.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart, thus understood, is a manifestation in the Church of the Holy Spirit, "helping us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought" (Rom 8:26). The Sacred Heart is, in the life of the Church, the organ by which "the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God" (Rom 8:27)..."

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Saint Who Climbed Out of the Bottle

Alcoholism isn't unknown to our family.

My mother was an alcoholic, as well as her sister, my godmother; possibly my grandfather. I was married to a wonderful woman, mother of my children, who died of alcoholism at age 44. Though I was always very aware of the possibility for myself, and a few youthful escapades which caused me to wonder, yet by the grace of God I escaped that particular addiction.

Along with the Catholic Church today, many honor Venerable Matt Talbot (1856–1925) an Irish ascetic, revered by many for his holiness, charity and the disciplining of the flesh. An unskilled laborer, Talbot lived alone for most of his life. His life would have gone unnoticed were it not for the penitential cords and chains discovered on his body when he died suddenly on a Dublin street, in 1925.

Talbot was the second oldest of twelve children born to Charles and Elizabeth Talbot, a poor family in the North Strand area of Dublin, Ireland. His father was a heavy drinker, as were most of his brothers later. At the age of 12 Matt obtained his first job in a wine-bottling store, very soon began sampling their wares, and coming home drunk. His drinking continued as he worked in whiskey stores, and soon he was well on the way to being a confirmed alcoholic. He frequented pubs in the city with his brothers and friends, spending most or all of his wages and running up debts. On one occasion, he stole a fiddle from a street entertainer, selling it to buy drink.

One evening in 1884, at age 28, Talbot, penniless and out of credit, waited outside a pub in hopes that somebody would invite him in for a drink. After friends passed him by, disregarding him, he went home, desperate and  disgusted with himself.  He told his mother that he planned  to "take the pledge", and went to Holy Cross College, Clonliffe, where a priest befriended him and before whom Talbot made a pledge not to drink for three months. At the end of that time, he renewed his resolve for another six months, then continued renewing it for longer periods, until finally he took the pledge for life.

After his 16 years of drunkenness, Talbot maintained sobriety for the following 40 years of his life. He found strength in prayer, began to attend daily Mass and to read religious material. He repaid his outstanding debts scrupulously, though his search for the fiddler whose instrument he had stolen came to no avail. So he gave the money to the parish church to have Mass offered for the man. It is said that Matt Talbot never carried any money with him, so as not to be tempted to break his resolve.

Talbot was a hard worker even when his alcoholism was at its worst. When he joined a building contracting firm as a hod-carrier, his work-rate was such that he was put first on the line of hodmen to set the pace. He later worked at the most menial and difficult jobs in a timber yard. He treated his bosses respectfully and on occasion stood up for fellow-workers. In 1911 Talbot joined the builder's laborers branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Talbot joined his co-workers during the Dublin Lockout of 1913, when sympathy strikes were called throughout the city. At first Talbot refused the strike pay, feeling that he hadn't earned it. Later he accepted it but  shared it among the other strikers. 

Matt Talbot became increasingly devout from the time he gave up drinking. He was guided for most of his life by The Rev. Michael Hickey, D.D., Professor of Philosophy at Clonliffe College. Under Hickey's guidance Talbot expanded his reading. Dr. Hickey also gave him a chain to wear, as a form of penance. In 1890, Matt became a Third Order Franciscan, and was a member of several other associations and sodalities. Although poor himself, Talbot was generous in giving to his neighbors and co-workers, to charitable institutions and to the Church. He ate very little. After his mother's death in 1915 he lived in a small flat with sparse furniture. He slept on a plank bed with a piece of timber for a pillow. Rising at 5:00 AM each day, he attended Mass before work. In his spare time at work, he made time to pray quietly. He spent time every evening, praying on his knees. 

As Matt was on his way to Mass on Sunday, June 7, 1925, he collapsed and died of heart failure. Nobody at the scene was able to identify him. His body was taken to Jervis Street Hospital, where he was undressed, revealing the austere heavy chain which he had wound around his waist, with more ropes on an arm and leg. The wearing of such penitential items was obviously less unusual in the 1920s than it is in the 21st century. Nevertheless, Talbot's story quickly filtered through the community and there were many spectators at his funeral when he was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery on June 11, 1925.

Matt Talbot quickly became an icon for Ireland's temperance movement, the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association, and his story soon became known to the large Irish emigré communities.The Apostolic Process toward sainthood began in 1947 with the official sworn testimony at the Vatican. On October 2, 1975, Pope Paul VI declared him to be "Venerable", the first step on the road to canonization, and a process requiring evidence of a physical miracle.
Talbot's remains were removed from Glasnevin Cemetery to Our Lady of Lourdes Church on Seán McDermott Street, Dublin, in 1972. 

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Confidence & Compassion: "My God, it works!"

Throughout Luke’s Gospel Jesus is depicted as being bold and in-charge. In an early chapter (4:29) Jesus’ hometown neighbors become enraged at some of the comments in his synagogue sermon. (Imagine anyone doing that!) They hustle him outside and begin pressing him toward a steep cliff. Instead of running off in fear, Jesus simply passes through the crowd. Then there was the time he set out with the disciples to sail across the harp-shaped lake, the Sea of Galilee. He decides to lie down in the back of the boat for a nap, but is soon awakened by shouts of “Master, we’re perishing!” As often happened, a storm kicked up suddenly on the lake, severe enough that the boat was taking on water. Rising, Jesus quietly but firmly “rebuked the wind and the raging waves; [and] they ceased and there was a calm”. (8:22-25) Again, in Chapter 13, when some Pharisees warn Jesus to get away because Herod apparently had a “contract” out on his life, Jesus coolheadedly sends with them to Herod: “'Tell that fox' that I won’t be rushed!"

Jesus broke taboos fearlessly, healing lepers and raising dead bodies. Refusing name-dropping games and power-plays, Jesus makes relationship with him depend on a complete reversal of the world’s values. He takes a child in his lap and says: “Unless you become as little children, you can’t be part of the reign of God.

At the same time, Jesus’ confidence was superbly balanced by his “human touch”, his compassion. Mark notes, in Jesus’ dealing with a leper, that “Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him...” As Jesus travelled about the cities and villages, Matthew notes, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless...” Someone, possibly, C. S. Lewis, once remarked that God has paid us human beings the embarrassing compliment of taking us seriously. There’s no question that the infallible sign of God’s seriousness is Jesus the Christ, who embodies both confidence and compassion.

The passage from Luke (7:11-17), the Gospel for today’s liturgy, beautifully and graphically depicts both of these. It may be that stories like the restoration to life of the widow of Nain’s son by Jesus, as well as of the widow of Zarephath’s son by Elijah in the first reading (1 Kings 17:8-24), raise many difficulties, maybe even creating more pain than solace for many Christians today. From the manner of telling and from some details in the stories it’s evident that they belong to a cultural view very different from ours, a world that might well appear even crude and superstitious to us. In this respect, these stories present tougher questions than other Gospel stories dealing with the healing of illnesses which can be given psychological or spiritual parallels.

The stories about life being restored to dead persons raise acutely the question of how God is in the world. They confront us, however much we may want to appreciate what was done for the two widows, with a sometimes vivid remembrance and awareness of other deaths: of a loved one, a friend, a spouse, or a child, which are not reversed. Yet these stories are also steeped in the great hope which Jesus brought to humankind in his living example of confidence and compassion, especially in his dying and rising: the hope that neither our failures, nor suffering and tragedy, nor even death itself, has the power to name who you and I are. The Letter to the Colossians assures us: “...you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.” (3:3-4) In the meantime, Christ-in-us invites us to embrace the brokenness of our own self and the world, to experience the sufferings of the whole world as our own suffering, bringing to it the compassion of Christ.

The story of the raising of the widow of Nain’s son appears only in the Gospel of Luke. The word Nain, which means pleasant, lovely, is about six miles S.E. of Nazareth. According to Jewish custom, a dead person was buried in the late afternoon of the day of death. A large funereal procession was expected, since honoring the dead was considered a meritorious work. Luke presents a situation of enormously tragic proportions. A son has died. Luke refers to him as a “man”, “his mother’s only son”, and Jesus calls him “young man”. The woman is a widow. The economics of the Roman world at that time generally made life precarious for most of the population, much more for those really needy. Since the woman is without a husband, in addition to this unbearable sorrow of losing a son, we can sympathize with her predicament that no one will see to her needs or care for her at all. Luke shapes his story to emphasize how salvation, which Jesus embodies in his ministry, repeatedly concerns itself with those at the edge: physically, socially, culticly, economically, and ethnically.

In v. 13 Luke refers to Jesus as “the Lord”: “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep’”. “Lord” = kyrios, in Greek, is a title signalling exalted position and even divine-likeness. Here, Jesus performs a miracle as extraordinary as the prophet Elijah's raising the son of the widow at Zarephath to life in the first reading. But Jesus is more than a prophet. In this scene, death meets its equal. Jesus’ sensitivity and compassion is but a prelude to his decisive, commanding, life-restoring action as Kyrios/Lord. With poise and purpose, he steps forward and, with a gesture which surely shocked not only the pallbearers, but the whole crowd of observant Jews, Jesus touches the bier, a ritually unclean act, bringing the procession to a halt. He calls out: “Young man, I say to you, rise!” Immediately the young man sits up and begins to speak. “And,” Luke observes, “Jesus gave him to his mother.” This is clearly a rebirth, a rebirth emerging as the result of Jesus’ confident and compassionate power. Luke holds up for all to see the transcendent power as well as the immanent intimacy of God in the actions and person of Jesus.

The widow apparently had friends, because Luke notes that “with her was a large crowd from the town”. It probably took a few moments for them to take in and begin to process all that was happening. Luke says that their first reaction is fear. But then their thoughts undoubtedly began to click back to a time some 30 years before, when Jesus and his cousin, John, were born. John’s father, Zechariah the priest, at that time had exclaimed in a spontaneous prayer of praise: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people...as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old...” And now the crowd is shouting out, referring to Jesus, “A great prophet has risen among us!...God has looked favorably on his people.” Their minds had put together that the One acting with such command and such compassion could only be a prophetic figure. God had visited his people once again! They stood in awe and soon began spreading the news “throughout Judea and the surrounding country.

Jesus is the bold and compassionate Lord of life with complete power over death. This means that the Holy God is present in Jesus’ action of raising the young man. We’ve learned over the past two weeks, through the mysteries of Pentecost and the Holy Trinity, that as the Father is the power who created us in love, as Jesus is the model of loving wisdom, mercy, and compassion, so the Holy Spirit of Love gives us the wherewithal to love the world of things and people with the love of Christ.

Particularly in this country’s contemporary church context, many seem to equate the “salvation” which Jesus brings, along with God’s reign, as belonging to a time and place beyond that of our own. People often
understand it in rather limited terms: focusing on forgiveness of sins and resurrection to eternal life as the primary, if not only, benefits for humankind. But that isn’t the reign of God which Jesus proclaimed and inaugurated. The reality of God’s reign belongs as much to the present as to the future, and it runs counter to those elements of our politics, economics, and social boundaries which tend to rob people of life and blessing here and now. As much as “being saved” involves wanting to confront and defeat the more dramatic forces of evil in the world arrayed against us, it’s ever so much more about recognizing Jesus as the true Lord of our life, here and now, and about opening the way for his saving mercy and compassion to touch other lives through what we say and do every single day.

Jesus’ parting words to us through his Apostles was “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation...” He assured us that in this mission and ministry the Spirit would guide us. You and I are called to speak and act with boldness, with confidence, with definiteness and clarity: not a confidence born of ourselves, but of the Lord Jesus. We’re called to do this with great sensitivity and compassion for every person who comes hungering for the Word of life, and exactly as they come to us, not foisting our own expectations or agenda upon them, but with respect, patience, courage, persistence, and, above all, love, holding out to them the possibility of a rebirth through relationship with Jesus the Lord. Here’s how writer Joe McCarthy puts it:

When Christianity happens
it is such a stranger
We call it by a special name,
We call it a saint.
Dumbstruck by the phenomenon
of Francis of Assisi
Our only reaction is:
‘My God, it works!’
The rule of sainthood will
never change:

You shall love the Lord your God
With all your heart,
With all your soul,
With all your mind,
With all your strength,
And you shall love your neighbor
as yourself.
All the fuss and feathers
of the world East and West
Are here reduced to two questions:
How deep is our touch with Him, and
How deeply are we in touch
with others?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

"I Am A Christian" - The Martyrs of Lyons, 177 A.D.

(Amphiteatre Trois Gaules, Lyons: site of the
martyrdom of St. Blandina and the Martyrs of Lyons)

As I was meditating on what it might have been like for Blandina and the others to have gone through what they did, I found myself asking what exactly might have been behind such utter courage and determination. Fr. John Julian, OJN, in his Stars In A Dark World (quite an apt title on this particular feastday!), gives a wonderful summary of the background of 2nd century persecution of Christians in the Lyons and Vienne communities and portions of the eye-witness account, possibly even from the hand of St. Irenaeus, who succeeded the then-Bishop Pothinus, one of the martyrs.

Even the details, graphic and gory as they are in the eye-witness account, probably come nowhere near the scope and reality of what these people suffered. First, they were socially outcast, "from houses, from the baths, and from the market". Then came mob violence as these followers of Christ were made scapegoats: stonings, vandalizing of their homes, insults and epithets, "and everything that an infuriated crowd loves to do to those it hates." And the cause: blatant misunderstanding and misinterpretation of what Christians believed and did. Myths. Hearsay fabrications. About cannibalism (the Eucharist), killing babies (worship of Christ the Child), incest (the ceremonial kiss of peace). Very much like today, where some people show their complete ignorance of fact as they act out their emotional rage and devastation of the work and lives of politicians, celebrities, and just plain good neighbors.

Persecution was then ramped up to the government level as Christians were called to appear in the forum for public grilling by the pagan governor's goon squad. Even an attorney of some nobility, Vettius Epagathus, who wanted to defend the accused Christians, himself became a victim when he admitted that he too was a Christian. As often happens in corrupt government inquiries, snitches, including other Christians, were brought in to testify against their brothers and sister, many of them repudiating their own membership in the Christian body.

And so it was that Bishop Pothinus, Deacon Sanctus, newly-baptized Maturus, Attalus, a faithful Church leader, Ponticus, a 15 year old boy, and Blandina, a slave whose mistress "was apprehensive lest Blandina not be able from bodily weakness to make her confession boldly". It's remarkable, perhaps miraculous, that most of the martyrs were able to physically endure the intense brutality to which they were subjected over several days. Blandina's endurance from morning to evening the first day is said to have left her torturers "faint and weary". Over and over she repeated: "I am a Christian, and nothing vile is done among us." Deacon Sanctus, suffering the application of red-hot plates to his body...several times...repeatedly replied: "I am a Christian."

If Blandina was a slave, her life couldn't have been much of a picnic prior to this. Where did she get her spunk, her raw courage to stand up, in a man's world, and challenge wrongful authority? Did those she served try to give her aid in her trial, or did they just recede into the background of polite society and "not get involved"? How was she, a lowly slave, able to inspire her brother and sister clergy, lay people, youth, young and old, to maintain their fidelity to the Risen Christ and to his Word on which they'd all staked their very lives? We'll never know, but surely it should set us thinking about the quality of our own religious belief and commitment. Our lives, after all, Blandina and her companions in 177, and all Christians since them down to 2010, including us, are all of the same piece. Each one of us has made a deliberate commitment in Baptism to respond to the teaching and actions, "the Way", of Jesus of Nazareth. What is it that can attract that kind of devotion? What draws us and sustains us in it? What if you and I were suddenly faced with an unexpected situation like that in which Blandina and her companions found themselves?

When 90 year old Bishop Pothinus was dragged before the tribunal, he was asked: "Who is the God of the Christians?", to which he answered: "When you are worthy, you shall know." Definitely not the answer a Roman tribunal wants to hear! But very much the answer which you and I need to hear again and again, and to seriously ponder in the context of our own life as members of the Body of Christ. 

"I am a Christian."  True or false?