Sunday, August 29, 2010

Being Number 1

Back in the ’80’s I remember seeing tennis star, Tracy Austin, Grand Slam singles champion in 1979 and 1981, interviewing Hana Mandlíková on Good Morning, America, just after Hana had taken the 1985 Grand Slam singles title. She asked Hana what her goals were now, what she hoped to accomplish. Mandlíková replied: “To win a few more Grand Slams and, for sure, to be Number 1.”

Whatever our age, regardless of what we do, we’re all aware of the inner struggle for acceptance, for being recognized, for being valued. We have a desire to be accomplished in at least one thing. For some it’s sports skills, for others being gifted movie stars, musicians, even politicians, these days, positively or negatively! Many others, for various motives, try to dazzle others with knowledge or position on the corporate ladder; or try to beguile others by a handsome face or a beautiful body. In itself, the desire to improve and to excel is quite natural, and today’s texts reflect upon this very human need for recognition and self-esteem.

As was his frequent custom, Jesus used parables, stories, examples, to convey a deeper message. The examples in Luke’s Gospel today (Luke 14:1; 7-14) relate to the role of guests and hosts at table. Jesus notes how guests are maneuvering for the honored places. He’s also aware that his host has put him, and probably others of prominence, on display in order to impress the host’s friends. And Jesus calls both to task for it. In this setting the Lord’s message points to a higher wisdom which allows one to escape being preoccupied, often to one’s own detriment and to that of others, with an unending quest for recognition. The Epistle to the Hebrews (13:1-8; 15-16) helps us to apply this message of the Gospel parable to some very specific areas and people in our lives, guiding us to understand the real source of human esteem and worth.

Jesus had been invited to a Sabbath dinner at the home of a Pharisee, probably a VIP, well-recognized and prominent in the community. Of course, Jesus was no slouch either when it came to being noticed! Earlier, in Chapter 11, Luke records a woman from a crowd eagerly blurting out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” In the next chapter Luke says that “many thousands had gathered” to hear Jesus, “so that they were trampling on one another.” (This, at a time long before rock concerts, mind you!) In last week’s Gospel, from Chapter 13, Luke comments that “the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing”, on that particular occasion, making the religious hypocrites in the synagogue look foolish.

Luke’s next words today, then, shouldn’t surprise us: “...they were watching him.” Some, much to the delight of the host, would ogle Jesus because here was someone whom the townspeople were talking about, this prophet of Nazareth, a true “headliner”. Others, Jesus’ enemies, again, “religious” folks, were engaged in a sort of “rabbi-sting operation”: pretending open hospitality, yet waiting for, hoping for, some indiscretion on Jesus’ part that would justify their getting rid of him. Perhaps as the evening wore on Jesus would loosen up a bit with food and wine, and say or do something that would make their day!

What Jesus did next is, unfortunately, omitted from today’s passage which shifts from v. 1 to v. 7. V. 2 reads: “There in front of [Jesus] was a man suffering from dropsy.” [Parenthetically, dropsy, more commonly called edema, refers to an abnormal accumulation of fluid which can affect the eyes, the extremities, the feet and various other organs.] “...So taking hold of the man,” says Luke, “he healed him and sent him away...

The Sabbath had been sacred almost as long as the recorded memory of the Chosen People. Its holiness had been enshrined in the Genesis creation story itself, with God’s own “resting” after creation justifying the foundation and basis of the Sabbath day of rest for all. Nevertheless, over the centuries the weekly rest, meant to be a blessing rather than a burden, had become a source of bondage for many Jews. Law after law defined what was work and what wasn’t. Some 39 kinds of work were forbidden on Shabbat. Because one could walk only a certain distance from home on the Sabbath, even an act of mercy to someone in need was to be avoided in order to be “on the safe side”.

What Jesus asked and eventually did at the dinner was quite astounding, and, to Pharisees, outrageous! Jesus‘ so-called “indiscretion” at this dinner far exceeded their wildest hopes! Here’s this man with dropsy, sitting right in front of Jesus. Luke tells us that “Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the Law, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?’” He’s met with stony silence. You can imagine them looking from Jesus to the man with dropsy, and thinking, “He wouldn’t dare.” But he did dare! “...taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him away.

One can only imagine the headlines the next day: “Jesus Caught In Synagogue, Blaspheming on the Sabbath!” Jesus was clearly either guilty of breaking the Law, or else he was conveying a radically new message to the Pharisees, and to us. The message is simple: God’s grace and mercy trumps everything else. Everything else. The only recognition, or esteem, or worth, the only thing which really makes you and me valuable and acceptable, and therefore equal, that makes you and me Number 1, is the fact that God accepts us through God’s enduring grace.

Many of us don’t find it easy to “accept that we are accepted” by God, as the noted Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, expresses it. The idea of grace: that I would be accepted and recognized and loved by God, simply for who, and what, and as I am, is so foreign to the way human beings normally deal with one another that we think that there must be a catch of some sort! Throughout his ministry, Jesus, in essence, had to almost jump up and down, and do and say outrageous things, as he did at the Pharisee’s dinner, just to get people’s attention and convince them (and us) that it’s true.

God is graciousness personified, grace, gratia = free gift. For an upcoming Cursillo weekend in October, I’ve been assigned the talk on Grace, and I love the Prayer Book’s definition given in the Outline of the Faith: “Grace is God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.” That graciousness never wears thin. “The loving kindness of the Lord endures forever”, says the Psalmist.

Fr. Michael Malone writes the following:
Imagine the following scene. A person feeling badly about himself; he has been involved in a minor traffic accident, hitting the car in front of him. It had been mostly the other driver’s fault for stopping abruptly without warning. The driver of the rear car has straightened out the matter, apologizing to the other driver as he feels a Christian should. But he knows that he has not meant the apology and really doesn’t feel sorry. A friend notices and says, ‘You speak now as though you regret something.‘ ‘Yes, I know I should have felt the sorrow which I expressed but didn’t feel.‘ ‘In other words, you feel sorry about not feeling sorry?‘ the friend asks. ‘Yes. I’m dissatisfied with myself: I don’t feel the sorrow which I think I should feel.‘ The friends asks, ‘And if you really did feel sorry about hitting the other car, then would you be happy?‘ The man says, ‘Well, I guess so. Then I wouldn’t feel as if God is holding up a final installment of forgiveness until I feel the way I think I ought to feel.‘ His friend smiles. ‘Do you think that God’s grace is conditional upon your feelings?‘ ‘I guess that’s what I think,‘ the driver admits. ‘Then how is that ‘grace‘ in any sense of the word? If you’ve earned it, then it isn’t a gift!’”

So often we believe that God’s forgiveness and grace “takes” only if we’re perfect, only if we do and feel all the “right” things. We live with guilt and with the suspicion that sooner or later we’ll ring up a “No Sale” at God’s cash register! So often we write ourselves and others off as something less than we really are. “Why would God look twice at us?” How could God be more of a “patsy” or a pushover than we are?

As the Letter to the Hebrews notes, the reason God is gracious to you and me is because God created us with the Love which is grace, and in God’s Son, “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and for ever”, redeemed us by grace and mercy, even though we were unworthy. God assures us that grace is ongoing: “I will never fail you nor forsake you.” The only way in which you and I could not be Number 1 in God’s eyes is if we were to deliberately choose, through selfishness, to be less than that. True, God’s grace and mercy isn’t without challenge. Once accepted, it will certainly stretch us to our limits. It may even offend us because it’s so unlike how we would act, so foreign to the yardstick we generally use to measure recognition and success.

In a beautiful book, written back in the 1960’s, called Prayers, Michel Quoist writes an unusual but marvelous reflection:

For an hour it was before my eyes,
During the whole lecture.
That was a fine dome, Lord,
Polished, shining, girdled with a horse-shoe of hair carefully
arranged and sternly held to the pattern prescribed.
The lecture bored me:
I had time to think,
And I thought, Lord, that you knew this dome well.
It hadn’t been out of your sight for years, and every day you say
‘yes’ when old Mother Nature asks permission to take a
few hairs more from the rapidly clearing field.
You said it in your Gospel: ‘not one hair of your head falls
without my permission.’

It’s true, Lord, that you are always thinking of us.
It’s true, from the beginning of time, before we existed,
Even before the world existed,
You have been dreaming of me,
Thinking of me,
Loving me.
And it’s true that you Love created me,
Not on an assembly-line, but unique,
The first one so made, and the last,
Indispensable to humanity.
It’s true, Lord, that you have conceived for my life a unique
It’s true that you have an eternal plan for me alone,
A wonderful plan that you have always cherished in your heart,
as a [parent] thinks over the smallest details in the life of [the]
little one still unborn.
It’s true that, always bending over me, you guide me to bring
your plan about, light on my path and strength for my soul.
It’s true that…when I stray or run hasten to pick me up if I
stumble or fall.

Lord, you who make bald heads, but above all beautiful lives,
You, the divine Attentive One,
the divine Patient One,
the divine Present One,
See that at no time I forget your presence.
I don’t ask you to bless what I myself have decided to do, but
Give me the grace to discover and to live what you have dreamed
for me.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Who Says Saints Don't Struggle Too?

As I grow older my body keeps shifting more and more southward! Like so many others of my age, my doctor has to push me to maintain an appropriately healthy weight, particularly to avoid diabetes. But, oh what a struggle, when you happen to be someone who enjoys well-prepared and well-presented cuisine!

That's probably one of the reasons why I've so admired Augustine of Hippo (354-430) for so many years: because he exemplifies a true flesh-and-blood holy man who knew the same sort of real struggles with which we deal in our lives. I never tire of reading his Confessions, which, along with being a heartfelt prayer to God, is much like a conversation with a friend.

Augustine has this to say on the problems of food and drink:
"...We rebuild each day's decay within the body by eating and drinking, until that time when 'you shall destroy both food and the stomach,' when you shall kill my hunger by a wondrous satiety, and 'clothe this corruptible with an incorruption' that will last forever. But now this need is sweet to me, and against such sweetness I fight, lest I be captured by it, and I wage daily warfare by fastings, more frequently 'bringing my body into subjection,' and my pains are driven out by pleasure...

But while I pass from the discomfort of hunger to repletion and content, a snare of concupiscence is laid for me in that very process. For the passage itself is pleasurable, and there is no other way whereby we can make that passage which our need forces us to make. Since good health is the reason for eating and drinking, a dangerous pleasure makes herself my companion. Frequently she strives to go on ahead, so that for her sake I may do what I either say I do or wish to do for reasons of health. Nor is there one standard for both of them: for what is enough for health is too little for pleasure. Often it becomes a matter of doubt whether it is the care needed by the body that seeks help or a deceitful desire for pleasure that demands service. The unhappy soul finds cheer in this uncertainty, and in it prepares an excuse and a self-defense. It rejoices that what suffices to maintain health is not evident, so that under pretense of health it may disguise a pursuit of pleasure. Each day I strive to resist such temptations, and I call upon Your right hand for help. To You do I refer all my doubts, because as yet I have no settled counsel upon this problem...

Set in the midst of such temptations, I struggle each day against concupiscence in eating and drinking. It is not something that I can resolve to cut off once and for all and touch no more, as I could concubinage. The bridle put upon the throat must be held with both moderate looseness and moderate firmness. Who is it, Lord, who is not carried a little beyond the limits of his need? ...Not such a one am I, 'for I am a sinful man.' Yet I too magnify Your name, and He who has overcome the world intercedes with You for my sins, numbering me among the weak members of His body. For 'your eyes have seen my imperfect being, and in your book shall all be written.'"

And here, we thought all that St. Augustine did was sit around and write theology all day!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Political Leader With Integrity

If you haven't read the amazing life story of Louis IX of France, by all means do so. You can find a wonderful summary of it in Fr. John Julian, OJN's marvelous lives of the saints, Stars In A Dark World.

Never slated to be king, the early death of all his brothers fairly shoved him into the position at age 12! Imagine a 15 year old teenager leading the French army to victory, for that's what Louis did, to the admiration of many more seasoned French military men. Add to that a couple of minor Crusades, which didn't turn out too well, and brought illness, and eventually, death to Louis. Even at that, the peasants of France and Prince Edward of England, an adversary, came to his aid, when he needed it, because of the great respect in which they held Louis.

He was apparently a wonderful spouse and father, having married Margaret of Provence and siring five sons and six daughters. More importantly Louis took his spiritual life extremely seriously, not just in words, but in generous deeds, discipline, and continual prayer. He was canonized, the first and only French king, only 27 years after his death, and is honored as the patron of the Third Order of St. Francis.

Prior to Louis' death in 1270, at the age of 56, he left the following living testament for his son, Philip:

St. Louis IX of France’s Last Testament to His Son

Then he [King Louis] called my Lord Philip, his son, and commanded him, as if by testament, to observe all the teachings he had left him, which are hereinafter set down in French, and were, so it is said, written with the king's own saintly hand:

"Fair son, the first thing I would teach you is to set your heart to love God; for unless one loves God he cannot be saved. Keep yourself from doing anything displeasing to God, that is, from serious sin. Contrariwise you should suffer every manner of torment rather than commit a grievous sin.

If God sends you adversity, receive it in patience and give thanks to our Savior...and know that God will make it turn to your advantage. If God sends you prosperity, then thank God humbly, so that you become not worse from pride or any other cause, when you ought to be better. For we should not fight against God with God’s own gifts.

Make your confession often and choose for your confessor a right worthy man who knows how to guide you what to do and what not to do; and bear yourself so that your confessor and your friends shall dare to reprove you in case of any misdoings on your part. Participate in the services of Holy Church devoutly, and without chattering; and pray to God with your heart and with your lips, and especially at Mass when the Consecration takes place. Let your heart be tender and full of pity toward those who are poor, miserable, and afflicted, and comfort and help them to the utmost of your power.

Maintain the good customs of the realm and abolish the bad. Do not be covetous against your people nor burden them with taxes and imposts, save when there is great need of it.

If you have any great burden weighing upon your heart, tell it to your confessor or to some right worthy person who is not full of vain words, and then you will be able to bear it more easily.

See that you have in your company men, whether religious or lay, who are right worthy and loyal and not full of covetousness, and confer with them often; flee and avoid the company of the wicked. Listen willingly to the Word of God and keep it in your heart, and seek diligently after prayer... Love all that is good and profitable and hate all that is evil, wherever it may be.

Let none be so bold as to speak before you any word which would draw or move anyone to sin, or be so bold as to speak evil behind another's back for the pleasure of it; nor should you tolerate any word in disparagement of God and of God’s saints to be spoken in your presence. Thank God often for all the good things bestowed upon thee, so that you be worthy of receiving more.

In order to do justice and right to your subjects, be upright and firm, turning neither to the right hand nor to the left, but always to what is just; and maintain the cause of the poor until such a time as the truth is made clear. If anyone has an action against you, make sure you investigate thoroughly until you know the truth; in this way, your counsellors will learn to judge more boldly according to the truth, whether for you or against you.

If you hold anything which belongs to another, whether by your own act or the act of your predecessors, and the matter be certain, make restitution without delay. If the matter be doubtful, have wise men make inquiry diligently and promptly.

Take care that your servants and subjects live under you in peace and uprightness. Especially maintain the good cities and commons of the realm in the same estate and with the same franchises as they enjoyed under your predecessors; and if anything needs amending, amend it and set it right, and keep all in your favor and love. For because of the power and wealth of the great cities, your own subjects, and especially your peers and barons, and foreigners will also fear to undertake anything against you.
Love and honor all persons belonging to Holy Church, and see that no one takes away or diminishes the gifts and alms paid to them by your predecessors. It is related of King Philip, my grandfather, that one of his counselors once told him that those of Holy Church did him much harm and damage in that they deprived him of his rights, and diminished his jurisdiction, and that it was a great marvel that he suffered it. The good king replied that he believed this might well be so, but that he had regard to the benefits and courtesies that God had bestowed on him, and so thought it better to abandon some of his rights than to have any contention with the people of Holy Church.

To your father and mother give honor and reverence, and obey their commands. Bestow the benefices of Holy Church on persons who are righteous and of a clean life, and do it on the advice of men of worth and uprightness.

Beware of undertaking a war against any Christian prince without great deliberation; and if it has to be undertaken, see that you do no harm to Holy Church and to those that have done you no injury. If wars and dissensions arise among your subjects, see that you appease them as soon as you are able.

Use diligence to have good provosts and bailiffs, and inquire often of them and of those of your household how they conduct themselves, and if any are guilty of the vices of inordinate covetousness, falsehood or trickery. Labor to free the land from all vile iniquity, and especially strike down with all your power evil swearing and heresy. See to it that your household expenses are reasonable.

Finally, my very dear son, please have Masses sung for my soul and prayers to be said throughout the realm. Give me a special share and full part in all the good you do. Fair, dear son, I give you all the blessings that a good father can give to his son. And may the blessed Trinity and all the saints keep and defend you from all evil. May God give you the grace to always do His will, so that God may be honored in you, and that you and I may both, after this mortal life is ended, be with God together and praise God everlastingly. Amen."

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Call Which Sets Us Free

There's never a time when God isn't calling us.

Jeremiah experiences it, in the first liturgical reading for today (Jeremiah 1:1-10). The Epistle to the Hebrews (12:18-29) refers to our hearing God's call. In Luke's Gospel passage (13:10-17) a crippled woman is literally "called over" by Jesus who addresses her affliction without her saying anything first. When one receives a call from God, the author of Hebrews strongly suggests, "See that you do not refuse the One who is speaking..."

And God always calls us at the most inconvenient times! For Jeremiah, it was as he was blossoming into becoming a teenager.  Probably had the changing voice, chin fuzz, pimples and everything! Now God wants him to go be a prophet to a bunch of stiff-necked people who, Jeremiah rightly suspects, are ready to eat him alive. As in several other familiar dialogues in Scripture between God and someone who's trying to talk himself out of a call, Jeremiah objects, raising the "age card". In fact, in most of our contemporary translations, which begin with maybe an "Ah...", we don't really get the full flavor of Jeremiah's  youthful response as the Hebrew text [ahah = a painful exclamation, Oh!]  and the old Catholic Douay-Rheims version ["Ah, ah, ah..."] render it. In essence, he's stuttering: "I'm only a boy!", in fact, probably a teenager. And God, in God's accustomed patient, gentle way, responds: "Don't be afraid...I am with you to deliver you." Jeremiah continues the narrative: "...Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and...said to me, 'Now I have put my words in your mouth..." Who could say "No" to that, teenager or adult?!

The woman of the Gospel's call came in the inconvenient moment of her being "bent over", "unable to stand up straight", and this "for eighteen years". Any guesses as to how she was looked upon and treated in her society? Or how she looked at herself all those years? Luke gives us no indication of her age. If afflicted in childhood, she was probably a young woman. If she became disabled in her young adulthood, she'd probably be middle-aged. If her misfortune happened later, she may have been of a more "mature" age. Whatever it might have been, she was probably soon taken for granted, perhaps left out of group activities, perhaps looked down upon by some or made the butt of jokes. In any case, she didn't have an easy go of it.

And now, this teacher from Nazareth, calls her forth, aloud, while he's teaching in the synagogue.  Within a matter of a sentence, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment...", she's cured and, Luke says, "...immediately she stood up and began praising God." " are set free..." Can you or I imagine how those words registered in her when she heard them?! And what was that motivated her to react at once with praise: habit?? emotional impulse?? Luke interposes a note of Jesus' ongoing difficulties with "religious" people. The synagogue leader feels obliged to affirm who's in charge here by "reminding" the congregation that the rule book says to come for healing only during office hours, "not on the sabbath day". Without missing a beat, Jesus firmly confronts the leader and others with their hypocrisy, much to the sheer delight of the rest of the congregation. First, he heals this lady of their community, then he puts those self-righteous synagogue officials in their place. What's not to approve by "rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing"?

Other than the fact that Luke notes that the woman "began praising God" immediately after she was cured, we don't know how she responded to the rest, especially to what Jesus said about her in his reprimand to the hypocrites: "And ought not this woman, a daughter of set free from this bondage..." To simply be publicly acknowledged as a woman by a man, and in the confines of the synagogue no less, was really something in Jesus' day. But to speak of her as a "daughter of Abraham" was to publicly point out the dignity of her call as a bearer of God's own promises, given previously to her forebear, Abraham, father of her people, and handed on to her. What greater honor could there be for a Jewish woman?!

The object of God's call to us and of the ministry to which we're called for others is always to set free. Jeremiah the teenager did it, at great personal cost, as he himself tells us, but he did it. We'll never know, until heaven, whether the healed woman followed through on her call or what she did. But I'd lay down money that she went out and did a good share of people setting free. As for you and me: "See that you do not refuse the One who is speaking..."

Friday, August 20, 2010

Christ's Coming In & Going Out: the Witness of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)

Recently a graduate student in anthropology told his project colleague, contemporary theologian and writer Dr. Stanley Hauerwas, that when he's asked by colleagues what it was like to write with Hauerwas, he commented that it's not easy because, in his words, "Hauerwas only knows how to write Christian." The same could surely be said of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the 12th century's most outstanding figures. In his voluminous sermons/writings you'll notice that practically every phrase emanating from his lips or pen is a composite of Christian Scripture lines. He does it so effortlessly that it leaves one astounded, and convinced that this can only be the fruit of many hours of "living with" Scripture.

For all his greatness, the Roman Breviary tersely summarizes Bernard's life, writings and activities in a mere 10 lines! Bernard was born of a distinguished family in Burgundy, and was from a young age diligent in cultivating Christian virtue. At 22 he entered the Benedictine monastery of Citeaux, where an Order, called the Cistercians, had been founded in 1098 by a group of monks from Molesme Abbey, who wished to follow the Rule of St. Benedict more closely. The leaders were St. Robert of Molesme, the first abbot, St. Alberic, the second abbot, and St. Stephen Harding, the third abbot. Bernard, despite his youth, convinced four of his own brothers to enter Citeaux, along with 27 others: a particular delight to Abbot Stephen, since the Order, noted for it rigorous austerity, hadn't attracted any novices for some years. Three years later, Stephen sent Bernard, with 12 other monks, to establish a new monastery in a desolate, God-forsaken place called the Valley of the Wormwood, though eventually it came to be known as Clairvaux = Bright Valley. St. Bernard remained the abbot here for 38 years.

When you look at what Bernard accomplished in his 63 years of life, it's quite astounding, given his  physical and psychological limitations.  To say that he "overdid" it with bodily austerities, to the detriment of good health, would be putting it mildly. He suffered continuously throughout the rest of his life because of it. He had such serious gastric problems that a hole was dug near his abbot stall so that he could regurgitate without having to leave choir. As Fr. John Julian puts it: "...because of his stomach problems, his halitosis was horrendous. In modern terms, he seems to have suffered from pyloric ulcers, neuralgia, abdominal spasms, cramps, intestinal blockage, and myasthenia gravis." (Stars in a Dark World, p. 446) Yet, by God's grace and his own perseverance, he held it together enough to become a truly holy man, which he himself once described as "...[one] seen to be good and charitable, holding back nothing for himself, but using his every gift for the common good."

Bernard loved his community of monks (which eventually grew to a house of 700!) and through his example of humility, mercy, kindness, prudence, and constant zeal for prayer and contemplation, he led them to live balanced lives according to the Rule and monastic discipline. His sermons frequently reflect his loving concern for them and their own problems. Through Bernard's leadership and efforts, the Cistercians grew from three houses to 500 houses, spanning an area from Ireland to Germany.

The Mellifluus (honey-mouthed) Doctor of the Church, as Bernard is called, wrote voluminously, and as the Breviary points out "it is apparent that his teaching was more the gift of God than the result of any efforts of his own." Bernard was often sought out by great princes, civil and ecclesiastical, to arbitrate disputes and to arrange ecclesiastical affairs. Some see his support of two Crusades as a blot upon his character, though his intentions seem to have been good.

Bernard fell gravely ill in 1152, and as the end of his life, the next year, approached, he said to his monks: "I bequeath to you three things to be, humility, patience -- these are the three things I leave you."

In his beautiful Commentary on the Song of Songs Bernard says: "...Now it is clear why there is always this sort of change in the soul. It is caused by the coming and going of the Word. He himself has said: 'I am going and I am coming to you'. And: 'A short time and you will not see me, and a short time and you will see me.' A short time and another short time! How long such a short time is! O good Lord, tell me how can any time be short in which we do not see you? With all due respect for this saying of my Lord, this time seems to me long and unduly extended. Yet both viewpoints are correct. The time of his absence is short for our deserts, but long for our desires...

Thus, fearless and without shame, the soul calls the Word back, boldly seeking his delights and with easy freedom calling out to a lover rather than to the Lord, saying: 'Return, my loved one.'...

But now you must bear with my foolishness for a moment. As I promised, I wish to speak of how this happens in my own case. It is for your benefit that I speak about myself even though it is not good to do so...I admit, in all foolishness, that the Word has visited me many times. When he enters I do not usually advert to his coming. I sense that he is present and I remember that he had been absent. Sometimes I have been able to anticipate his entry, but I have never been able directly to experience either his arrival or departure. I confess that I am ignorant of where he comes from when he enters my soul, and where he goes when he departs. I do not know the manner of his entry, nor how he leaves. This is in accordance with the text of Scripture, 'Nobody knows whence he comes or where he goes to.' This should occasion no surprise since he is the one of whom it is said: 'Your footprints shall not be known.' He does not come in through the eyes, for he has no color; nor through the ears, since he makes no sound. It is not through the nose that he comes; he does not mingle with the air, but with mind; to the atmosphere he give being not odor. Nor does he gain entry through the mouth, because he is not food or drink. He cannot be experienced by touch, since he is impalpable. How then does he find entrance? Perhaps he does not enter at all as he does not come from outside and is not to be identified with any external object. On the other hand, he does not come from inside me: he is good and I know there is nothing good within me.

I ascended to what was highest in me and, behold, the Word loomed loftier. Earnestly I explored the depths of my being and he was found to be yet deeper. If I looked outside, I saw him beyond myself. If I gazed within, he was even more inward. It was then that I realized the truth of what I had read: 'In him we live and move and have our being.' Happy are they in whom dwells the One by whom they live; happy they who live for him and are moved by him!..."


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Christ: The Life That Lives For Us, That Lives In Us, In Which We Alone Live


"I determined not to know anything among you save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified."--1 Cor. ii. 2.

On this one occasion of my life, in this place, and upon this spot, I may presume to be somewhat personal. When the suggestion was made to me of this week, naturally the meaning and the possibly useful purpose of it came very powerfully over me, and long and very serious thought arose--of myself, of Sewanee and my forty years here, of the Church that placed us here, of the time, and the times, past and future. What have we done? What are we? What are we going to do and to be? In fact, the very first hint, some years ago, of such an occasion as this came to me coupled with some such questioning: What can we put, not only into shape, but into motion here at Sewanee, for Sewanee, for the Church, for our country and our time? No doubt such questions have come to many of us in the form: What new thing can we devise, what new interest arouse, what new movement inaugurate? I suggest in anticipation what is probably a better form of the query: How can we acquire the secret of making the old ever new, and keeping it so?

Some illustrations have recently come to us right here of how something like that might be accomplished. It is not so long since doubts and fears and forebodings were rife in many of our minds. Under the look of things as they were, it was impossible to come here or be here and not ask: Are we in the right place? How much longer can we live under these conditions? We came here this summer--and looked around--and rubbed our eyes--and asked ourselves: Where are we? What has happened? The old place, the very, dear, old spot, had been transfigured, had become new. With it the whole tone of things was altered: What a beautiful place was Sewanee! What a perfect, predestined spot for such a mind and heart and life centre! But that was not half the transformation. We had heard that students, trustees, alumni, residents were all disheartened and despondent--and, lo! the transfiguration on our mountain top of the mere ground was as nothing to that which had come over the spirit of Sewanee; never was determination so determined, and, by sheer consequence, never were hopes more high or was life more active.

What is the moral already? We do not forever want new things; we want the art of keeping things forever new. The change we need is not in the things, it is in us and our hold upon the things--our life in them, our use of them, our labor for them. Let us remember that our Lord taught absolutely nothing new--the Gospel was older than the Law, God's love than man's obedience. He Himself, the incarnation of our faith, our hope, our life, was before Moses, before Abraham, before Adam, before the foundation of the earth, as old as God, because He was God's love-disposition, love-purpose, Self-realization in us and in His world. Our Lord spoke only of God and of man, and their mutual relations; on God's part, of love, grace, and fellowship or oneness with us (coming down)--and on our part (going up) of faith, hope, and love that make us one with Him. Our Lord uttered no new word, gave no new commandment, even instituted no new sacrament--water and bread and wine were already in themselves not only symbols or signs, but instruments and agents of birth and life. He took all the old things as they were, and He made them all living and new. When He took His disciples up with Him into the very high mountain, it was not really in Himself, but only to them that He was transfigured. They saw Him as the sun and His raiment as the light; they heard words from heaven, claiming Him for God and declaring Him to man. But their so seeing and hearing was only through the exaltation of their own spiritual selves and faculties. Jesus was always so, if their senses could but have perceived it. We do indeed live only in our supreme moments. Things are monotonous, dull, dead enough, day after day, perhaps year after year, until somehow we are taken up--let me say, however, that we are never taken up, except as also, with all our spiritual cooperation, we take ourselves up--into the exceeding high mountain, and there all our world becomes transfigured before us. "Old things are passed away: behold all things are become new." Mind, not all new things have become, or come to pass, but all things, the old things, have become new. God and heaven are everywhere and always here if we could but see them; but alas! almost nowhere, and so seldom here, because so few of us can see them, and we so seldom.

How is it that our Lord Himself could live so continuously and so high? I am speaking of Him humanly; and speaking so, we must remember, however, that He had His deep places as well as His high, His darkness as well as light, His desertions and emptiness as well as His exaltations and fulness, His descents into hell as well as His ascents into heaven. But still, how could our Lord walk as continuously as He did upon the mountain tops, with such deep waters and desert places, such Gethsemanes and Calvaries always beneath His feet? We must look for very old and simple and human answers if we would know our Lord as He came to be, and was, the Way, the Truth, and the Life for us. It is because, what time He could spare from the valleys, ministering to the multitudes, going about doing good, He was wont to spend upon the mountains, drawing breath and strength and life from God.

Let me then state, or restate, my proposition and afterward draw from it one or more corollaries. The proposition is that we do not want any new outward truth or law or scheme in itself, but only a new, and ever new, inward relation, or relation of ourselves to the ever-old, ever-new truth. We want the spiritual art and science of a self-renewing and self-sustaining faith and hope and love. The Jesus who was transfigured upon the Mount is He who is the same yesterday, and today, and forever. The subject of conference in the Transfiguration was the old story of the Cross. They spake of His decease which He should accomplish at Jerusalem. "I determined," says St. Paul, "to know nothing among you save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified." If we cannot get high enough, often enough, to get and keep these truths illuminated and glorified in our minds and hearts and lives, we must be content to remain in the dark. For what is Jesus Christ but God in us and we in God? And what is the Cross but the actual process by which all that is not God dies in us, and all that is lives and grows in us?, And what other end or content can there be to our faith, hope, and love?

The trouble to which we are ever coming back is that we cannot keep the flame burning more steadily in us, that individuals, communities, churches, the Church of Christ should so live, and so need to live, in mere occasional re-awakenings and revivals. At least, it is a blessing and a comfort to us to know that it is only our own infirmity that it is so; it is something to have discovered, and to be able to hold fast to the discovery, that when we are at our best, and just in proportion as we are at our best, we know the truth and know it to be the truth; and equally, that when we are in the truth, and in proportion as we are so, it gives us all the promised power to be at our best. The power of the truth in that sense to "make us free" is its divine credential to us. We are very finite beings, entrusted with and handling infinite forces. The omnipotence of God is at our puny disposal; His eternal love, His infinite grace, His perfect fellowship and oneness with us are ours to command. "All things are ours" if we will but take them and use them. God does not give piecemeal or half-way; His very kingdom and throne are theirs who will take it; He invites us, in Jesus Christ, to occupy it with Him, and offers as well as bids us to be perfect, even as He is perfect. We have no other end or goal than God Himself. We are very finite beings entrusted with infinite forces; let us not be too much disheartened that they do not work infinitely in us, that we handle them very crudely; we are trying and learning to drive the chariot of the sun. At the same time, let us never cease to aim at and labor for their perfect handling, the straight and true driving. If it be true that we do live, if only in our supreme moments, is not every moment in which we have so lived a new and sufficient proof to us of the eternal and infinite reality of the Life Indeed?--and a new and compelling incentive to us to live it, though it take us forever, and we have to pass through deaths and resurrections, to do so? How much longer and greater a thing is life than we Know or think! In the meantime, the fact that even our Lord, in the needful and inevitable infirmity of our present humanity, had moments in which He needed to know anew that He was the Son of God, that He had to learn afresh upon the very cross that there is no such thing as a divine forsaking, though so often there so seems to be, ought to teach us how to have faith in even our darkest hours, and hope when we are faintest and farthest off.

All the new things, all the modern isms, of Christianity that have life in them, as many of them have, are but broken fragments of the Truth that is One and is ever the Same. While our sects and our parties live by the truth that is in them and that is vital in them, they are but too apt to live also in a deadly competition with other truths as true as they, and so in fatal detriment to the whole and the wholeness of truth. The course of truth and of life, with beings such as we are, never can move centrally and evenly, wholly and altogether. It is always one side or some part of it that is in motion or in action, and that too often in a way to incur the misunderstanding and resistance of the other parts. There is always fault on both sides: the new, renewed, or revived side of the truth that is in action is so apt to narrow its outlook and vision to the restricted field of its immediate interest and attention, and then to become exclusive, intolerant, and arrogant toward all other views or conceptions. The side or sides that are not in action, or in the movement, are not as appreciative of, or as hospitable to, the revived truth and life in the new movement as they ought to be--and then they proceed to lower their own life by becoming to the "party" in progress an equally mere party in opposition.

The principle of competition, of antagonistic, divisive, separative, of hateful, hating, and deadly competition, has been prevailing in Christianity just as much as in our earthly life and business. The times are changing, and the call, the appeal, comes to us from every source and direction--comes to us Christians, to show the way, the better way, among ourselves, in our own relations with one another, of love and mutual understanding and peaceful and fruitful cooperation.

We have been here now nearly the week--our week together. I think I have seen everything we have done and heard everything we have said. I have looked and listened with very sensitive and interested and anxious organs, with every sense alert. We who are gathered here are of every sort and of all sorts as to our natural and acquired attitudes toward truth and life; we represent all the sides and aspects of faith and opinion; we have all the allowable differences among ourselves. In all this conference and in all our personal association I have not heard one note, I have not detected one tone that did not, or could not, carry me back behind all our differences to the one theme that has occupied all our thoughts, filled all our hearts, and been upon all our tongues to the exclusion of everything else--The Life--the Life that was lived, that lived, for us--that lives in us, and in which alone we live. In the truest sense we have gone back to Christ, back behind everything else, to Christ, Who is our Life.

We stand indeed today together upon an exceeding high mountain--upon this mountain, not only as itself transfigured, but as itself no less a Mount of Transfiguration. It is our Lord Himself Who has brought us up hither. And we have been talking with Him and with one another about Him. We have seen His face as the sun, and His vesture whiter than any fuller or fuller's soap on earth could whiten it. All our talk has been of Him, of the decease that He accomplished for us at Jerusalem, of the life that He lives with us and in us now and forever.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Mary's Assumption In Light of Women & the Poor

I was in 8th grade when Pope Pius XII, on November 1, 1950, declared the Assumption of Mary a dogma of the Church. Though I don't remember much specifically about the Assumption per se, I do recall that it was a Jubilee Year, and that Mary was honored somehow.

Even later, through my seminary years, I don't recall thinking much about the details of the Assumption teaching. It meant more to me that it was always a feast day, with a grand solemn liturgy, and therefore a free day from the usual summer routine! Like most Catholics and probably all my fellow seminarians, I simply accepted it as the Church's teaching without delving into all the finer doctrinal details.

During my meditation on the Assumption and its implications this morning, I experienced the desire, which many of us must feel at times, for more "information", more details. Of course, I realize that that is isn't possible. Nevertheless, the ancient tradition of the Eastern Orthodox churches' of the Koímesis or Dormition ("falling asleep") of Mary is a lovely "guesstimate" of what might have been the case. Already in the 1st century, the priest/martyr Dionysios the Areopagite wrote about the subject. In the 2nd century, an account of the Dormition is found in the works of Meliton, Bishop of Sardis. The 4th century St. Epiphanios of Cyprus refers to the tradition handed down about Mary's "falling asleep". In the 5th century the holy Patriarch of Jerusalem, Juvenal, told the Byzantine empress Pulcheria: "Although in Holy Scripture there be no account about the circumstances of Her end, we know about them otherwise from the most ancient and credible tradition". This tradition was gathered and expounded in detail in the Church history of Nicephoros Kallistos during the 14th century.

The tradition says that at the time of her blessed Dormition, Mary was again at Jerusalem. Her fame as Mother of God had already spread throughout the land, with varying reactions. She is said to have spent day and night in prayer, and often went to Jesus' tomb, where, kneeling, she offered up incense. In one such visit the Archangel Gabriel is said to have appeared to her and announced her own approaching transfer from this life into eternal blessedness. As a sign, Gabriel entrusted to her a heavenly palm branch. Mary then returned to Bethlehem with her three young attendants, Sepphora, Evigea and Zoila. She summoned Joseph of Aramathea and other disciples of Jesus, and informed them of the impending conclusion of her life here below. Mary also prayed that the Lord would bring the Apostle John to her,  after which the Holy Spirit transported him from Ephesus, setting him alongside that very place, where Mary had already lay down. After praying, Mary offered up incense, and John heard a voice from heaven, closing her prayer with the word "Amen". Upon which, the Apostles, disciples, and the holy Bodiless Powers arrived with haste. The disciples, says St. John Damascene, whose number was impossible to count, flocked together like clouds and eagles around the Mother of God. Seeing one another and rejoicing, the disciples still wondered why the Lord had gathered them together.  St. John the Apostle and Theologian, greeting them with tears of joy, told them that Mary's time to repose had begun. Going in to her, they saw her lying on the cot, filled with spiritual happiness. They greeted her, and told about their being miraculously transported from their places of preaching. Mary glorified God, thanking God for hearing her prayer and fulfilling her heart's desire.

In the meantime, the Apostle Paul likewise appeared in miraculous manner, together with his disciples Dionysios the Areopagite, Hierotheos, and Timothy, as well as others from among the 70 disciples, to witness the burial of the Mother of the Lord. Mary blessed all of them and encouraged them in their faith and hardships in preaching the Gospel of her Son. To each she wished eternal bliss and prayed with them for the peace and welfare of all the world.

At the third hour, as a multitude of candles blazed, the holy disciples, with song, encircled Mary's sick-bed. As she prayed in anticipation of her demise and of the arrival of her longed-for Son, suddenly the inexpressible Light of Divine Glory shone forth. All gathered there became frightened. As though immersed in the rays of the indescribable light, Christ appeared in glory, surrounded by hosts of Angels, Archangels, and other heavenly Powers, along with the spirits of the forebears and prophets. Seeing her Son, Mary exclaimed: "My soul magnifies the Lord, and My spirit rejoices in God my Savior, Who has regarded the lowliness of God's handmaid." Rising from her bed, she bowed down to Christ. And the Lord bade her to come and enter into life eternal. Without any bodily suffering, as though in an joyous sleep, the Most Holy Virgin Mary gave up her spirit into the hands of her Son.

Joyous angelic song ensued, as the Angels accompanied the pure soul of the God-betrothed. Heaven's gates were raised, and meeting the soul of Mary, Mother of God, the Cherubim and Seraphim glorified her with resounding joy. Mary's graced face shone radiant with the divine glory, and from her body exuded a sweet fragrance.

Kissing the all-pure body reverently and in great awe, the disciples were filled with grace and spiritual joy. Through God's power, many of the sick, who in faith and love touched the holy cot, were healed. Bewailing their separation on earth from Mary, the Apostles set about burying her body. The holy Apostles Peter, Paul, James and others of the 12 Apostles carried the funeral bier upon their shoulders. St. John walked at the head of it with the resplendent heavenly palm-branch, and a crowd of other saints and faithful, carrying candles and censers and singing sacred songs, accompanied the bier. The solemn procession went from the Sion-quarter through the city of Jerusalem to the Garden of Gethsemane.

At the start of the procession there suddenly appeared over Mary's body and over all those accompanying it a vast and resplendent circular cloud. The singing of Angels and heavenly Powers, glorifying the Mother of God, echoed that of the worldly voices below, as this radiant circle accompanied the procession to the place of burial.

When the procession reached the Garden of Gethsemane, then amid the weeping and wailing began the last kiss to the all-pure body of Jesus' mother. Only towards evening time were the Apostles able to place it in the tomb and seal the entrance to the cave with a large stone. For three days they stayed at the place of burial, during which time they gave themselves to unceasing prayer and psalmody. As had happened after Jesus' resurrection, the Apostle Thomas had not been present at Mary's burial. Arriving late on the third day, he lay down at the sepulchral cave and with bitter tears asked that he might be given a final blessing of the Mother of God as he bade her farewell. The Apostles, out of pity for him, decided to open the grave and permit him at least the comfort of venerating Mary's holy remains. Having done so, they were all amazed to find in the grave only the cloth wrappings. They were thus convinced of the bodily ascent or assumption of the Holy Virgin Mary into heaven.

As many Native American storytellers commonly say: "I don't know if it happened exactly this way, but I know that it's true!" Though I don't need a "dogma" to tell me so, I believe that God honored the Theotokos (Godbearer) in a preeminent way after her "falling asleep" in death, that she continues to be our Mother in addition to being a special saint, and that she intercedes for us before the Lord.   

I also did find a passage from a book by Ivone Gebara and Maria Bingemer, Mary, Mother of God, Mother of the Poor, which is a slightly different, but no less valuable, take on the subject:

"Mary's assumption brings a new and promising future for women. Excluded from Jewish initiation rites because of their anatomy, banned from full participation in worship and the synagogue by their menstrual cycles, for a long time women -- even in Christianity -- subtly or explicitly have been second-class citizens in the world of faith because of the 'inferiority' and the 'poverty' of their bodies.

Mary's assumption, however, restores and reintegrates woman's bodiliness into the very mystery of God. Starting with Mary, the dignity of women's condition is recognised and safeguarded by the creator of that very bodiliness. In Jesus Christ and Mary the feminine is respectively resurrected and assumed into heaven -- definitively sharing in the glory of the Trinitarian mystery from which all proceeds and to which all returns...

The assumption is the glorious culmination of the mystery of God's preference for what is poor, small, and unprotected in this world, so as to make God's presence and glory shine there.

The virgin of the Magnificat, on whose lips is placed the message that God is exalting the humble and casting down the powerful, finds her life confirmed and glorified by the Father of Jesus. Mary's assumption -- seen in the light of Jesus' resurrection -- is hope and promise for the poor of all times and for those who stand in solidarity with them..." 

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Running In Solidarity

The only medal I ever won in my life was a 1979 Naturite Distance Run medal! I was proud to receive this medal, not so much as an honor to me. It was certainly no Olympic gold, and it involved a whole lot more of the “agony of defeat” than of the “thrill of victory”!

The “Naturite [Vitamin] Run-for-Fun”, as it was called, was held at Cal Expo in Sacramento. There were two events: a 10,000 meter race (6 laps around the race track) and a 5000 meter race (3 times around the track). Within each event, there was a men’s and women’s category in each of three divisions: one for youngsters, one for the middle-aged and one for those over 40. Considering myself an optimist, but no fool, there wasn’t any way I was going to run 6 times around the Cal Expo race track! So I entered the 5000 meter.

As my son and daughter can happily confirm, I went into rigorous training, all of two weeks before the great event! They spent many an evening at Howe Park, having the greatest time on the playground, watching what must’ve seemed like a slightly deranged man panting and puffing and sweating around the edge of the park. My colleagues at work encouraged me daily with comments like: “You’re crazy!” or “You’ll never make it!” or “Are you sure the doctor said it was OK?” Nevertheless, I was obsessed with the challenge of proving that I could be a winner, at least in the over-40 division!

Gradually, I worked up to what I thought was the equivalent of three times around the track. On the Tuesday before the race, however, I ran on the sidewalks around the park rather than on the grass, and came down with shin-splints so painful that I could hardly walk. Only on Friday evening did I try even a walking workout, much less a running one. By Sunday morning, I had serious doubts about the whole thing, right up to race time. But the challenge and determination spurred me on.

As though physical pain weren’t enough for discouragement, when I arrived at Cal Expo we were informed that, because the event had drawn so few participants, they were doing away with the three divisions and running everyone together! Standing at the starting line with what appeared to be high school track stars, sun-tanned veteran joggers, and eager youngsters, I suddenly grasped the meaning of the words “generation gap”! To add insult to injury, in the first half mile of the race, the unkindest cut of all was when a little 10 year old boy passed me by on the second lap (his 3rd!) and shouted out “Hang in there!” The frustration, and even a little embarrassment, only urged me on through that last lap. Three quarters of the way through it, I all but gave up because of the pain. But with the goal that close, I managed a final spurt of energy the last 10 yards and crossed the finish line. To my amazement, as I came into the exit lane, an official congratulated me and thrust the medal into my hand, along with a small box: an assortment of Naturite vitamins!

I never did bother to find out what my running time was, nor where I placed. The medal itself was valuable because it represented an accomplishment of which I was proud. I’d committed myself to see it through, and had undergone the necessary discipline of training, even when it proved painful. And in the end, I had the joy of saying: “I did it!

The author of Hebrews, in today’s Epistle (12:1-14), was perhaps thinking of something like this in describing the race of Christian life, a race which has no divisions or categories. We all run it. Today’s passage follows Chapter 11 where the author gives a sort of short course in biblical history. He singles out the great heroes of faith, from Abel to Samuel and the prophets. In Chapter 12, using imagery of a sports stadium, he pictures this great crowd of witnesses, who have already run their races, now cheering us on to run well. He notes the importance of running unencumbered by selfishness and bad habits. The race, moreover, isn’t a sprint, but rather demands endurance. He says we must run steadily and pace ourselves, and that largely depends on where God wishes you and me to be in our life, at the time God determines, and for the purpose God has in mind. The greatest incentive for our running, he tells us, is looking ahead to the finish line, to Jesus, the beginner and completer, “the pioneer and perfecter”, of our faith. Jesus’ vision of “the joy which was still before him, in the future” is what gave him the determination and courage to keep going, even to death on the Cross, despite the shame, despite opposition from enemies: enemies who turned out to be his own sisters and brothers. As if anticipating our temptation to quit running at the first sign of temptation, the author of Hebrews reminds us that none of us has yet fully paid our dues: “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood”, as Jesus did.

Suffering, the Cross, is an inescapable part of our human and Christian lives. Though we don’t like it at the time, by God’s grace it is always redemptive and it “yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

In the Gospel (Luke 12:49-56) Luke’s Jesus tells us in the most forceful terms about the demands involved in following him. Jesus echoes what John the Baptizer once said of him: that Jesus will baptize with Holy Spirit and with fire: “I came to bring fire to the earth...I have a baptism with which to be baptized...Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division...You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

It’s not a message we want to hear! We prefer the quiet, gentle, reassuring Jesus. But as he and the disciples get nearer to Jerusalem in Luke’s Gospel, the City of Peace where untruth, cruelty and violence -- even death -- will be unleashed on Jesus, as it was on the prophets before him, Jesus goes to the heart of his teaching, namely, the “reign of God”, the reign of truth and all that it implies. Jesus, the Living Word and Example, the Message of God in the flesh, challenges each of us to choose whether or not we will generously align ourselves for or against the kingdom, the reign of truth.

Eight centuries before Jesus, Micah the prophet foretold that believing in God can lead to painful anxiety, suffering, division in all a person’s relationships, even in the closest relationship, to one’s family. Jesus repeats Micah’s prophecy, in v. 53, in shocking detail! It leaves no doubt that, once one commits oneself to God, God’s truth, God’s reign, there’s no thing, no cause,no person -- even a parent, a brother or a sister -- whom we can put ahead of Jesus as our priority.

In today’s first reading (Jeremiah 23:23-29) the prophet Jeremiah says much the same thing from a slightly different viewpoint. In condemning the people’s reliance on bogus, hypocritical “prophets”, who say only what people want to hear, God reminds them that God isn’t a part-time God, present only when they need something, but that God is always present, even in the midst of their doubting and suffering. God is very truly God and part of one’s life, even when a person has drifted and is caught up in the pursuit of false freedom, pleasure, and possessions, and in the resulting emptiness and disappointment.

Jeremiah points out that phony prophets come and go in every age, while God remains present. We’re all familiar with so-called “prophets” who offer people, especially vulnerable, suffering folks, a whole range of pious platitudes, sugary assurances, magic solutions, but are no real help in their suffering. In fact, they often compound people’s problems by preaching a gospel of ease and success, of wealth and blessing. The Cross cannot be removed from the Gospel, nor can the gospel preached by false prophets be a reliable defense against life’s real traumas. “Let him who has my Word speak my Word faithfully.”, God reminds the people.

Scripture scholar Gary Peluso-Verdend writes: “One of the common denominators in [today’s] lections is that telling the truth and deciding who is telling the truth often divides people...A contemporary comedian [Stephen Colbert] who satirizes the day’s news and newsmakers coined the term ‘truthiness’, meaning that in today’s parlance, public words that pass for truth are too mushy and questionable. Real truth often divides and evokes anger from those who live in and with lies. It is always time to speak in a truthful manner...It is not good to isolate the need for truthful speech and actions from the needs for compassion and community; sometimes we are afraid to speak of truth for fear of evoking anger or even violence against ourselves. Neither is it good to allow truthiness to go unchecked. Truth spoken in love nourishes even as it tears down in order to build on a solid foundation. Truthiness neither nourishes nor can [it] endure over time…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor martyred by the Nazis in 1945, wrote from prison that to really believe is to stake your life on the something or Someone in whom you believe. And when you do so, you’re sure to experience, at some point, challenge or opposition or conflict, either from inside yourself or from others outside. Religious faith and suffering go hand-in-hand when your life is set on Jesus the Christ. Bonhoeffer observes: “It is infinitely easier to suffer in obedience to a human command than to accept suffering as free, responsible men. It is infinitely easier to suffer with others than to suffer alone. It is infinitely easier to suffer as public heroes than to suffer apart and in ignominy. It is is infinitely easier to suffer physical death than to endure spiritual suffering. Christ suffered as a free man alone, apart and in ignominy, in body and in spirit…

If Jesus is, as the author of Hebrews says, the One who begins faith and the One who helps faith become fully mature and adult, then you and I must participate in and share His suffering and anguish. Only by involving ourselves in the “reign of God”, the reign of truth, in the life of this world, wherever we are, can we genuinely live in faith. Bonhoeffer sees this as a kind of Christian “worldliness”. It means, for example, that rather than simply add names to prayer lists, we involve ourselves one-to-one in healing, reconciling, encouraging, feeding and clothing our sisters and brothers. It means immersing ourselves in family, the parish, the community, the world where God is often absent: a world of prejudice, hatred, and violence; of self-serving politics; of racial and sexist injustice; a world of terrorists and hostage-takers; of deceptive, immoral employers and corporations; a world of families ripped apart by divorce, addictions and abuse of all kinds; a world of lonely people, and people with little hope beyond just getting through tomorrow.

Setting our hearts on Jesus, believing and following him, means allowing ourselves to be caught up in the way of the Cross, the way of life, being in solidarity with Jesus’ sufferings in the life of the world, living in faith with determination and courage.

On Monday this week the Church commemorated St. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross, a relatively little-known Carmelite nun, known in secular life as the philosopher, Edith Stein, who, with her sister, Rosa, died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, 68 years ago, in 1942. Both of them were at the Carmel in Echt, Holland, when they were arrested. Teresia could have escaped to Switzerland, but Rosa wasn’t able to get the necessary papers. Rather than abandon her sister, Teresia chose to stay with her, knowing that it would lead to both their deaths eventually.

What would give a human being that kind of determination and motivation in making such a choice? What did Teresia’s choice, and Rosa’s, say about the depth of their search for truth and their Christian faith which, because they were born Jewish, meant that they had to go against the deep religious convictions of their own family and friends? I believe that there’s a clue in some lines which Teresia had written in a meditation some years before, and which can serve to challenge you and me today in our journey of faith. She wrote: “Do you want to be totally united to the Crucified? If you are serious about this, you will be present, by the power of His Cross, at every front, at every place of sorrow, bringing to those who suffer comfort, healing, and salvation.

The Assumption or Dormition of Mary

(Window in the Assumption Chapel, St. Charles Seminary, Carthagena, OH
where I was ordained)

 The assertion that the Blessed Virgin Mary had been taken up to glory in soul and body is first found in New Testament apocrypha of the 4th century. From the 6th century it gained support among people in both the Eastern and Western Church, and by the end of the 8th century it was generally held, and the feast of the Assumption (in the west), or the feast of the Koimesis = falling asleep (in the East) was observed on August 15. The medieval schoolmen provided theological defense for the popular devotion, though it wasn't considered an "official" teaching of the Church. In the 18th century Benedict XIV classed it among "probable" opinions. At Vatican Council I (1870) a growing desire for an official declaration was evident. This continued until November 1, 1950, when Pius XII declared and defined the Assumption/Koimesis as a dogma of the Catholic Church. The Episcopal Church honors Mary on this day as "St. Mary the Virgin".

Saturday, August 14, 2010

St. Jonathan Myrick Daniels (1939-1965) - Seminarian, Martyr

O God of justice and compassion...
We give you thanks for your faithful witness, Jonathan Myrick Daniels...
and we pray that we, following his example,
may make no peace with oppression...

"Make no peace with oppression...":

of innocent Iraqi and Afghan citizens...
of women in the Sudan and Middle Eastern countries...
of sweatshop workers in China...
of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people anywhere...
of Latino farmworkers and families...
of Muslim citizens exercising their legal rights to freedom of religion...
of aging and disabled persons...
of children subjected to any kind of abuse...
of Gulf Coast citizens by corporate greed, self interest, and defiling of the environment...
of people of color through racial profiling and subtle prejudice...

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Blessed Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) - Nurse, Social Reformer

"Today, O Lord, let me dedicate this crumbling old woman to Thee.
Behold the handmaid of the Lord."
(Florence Nightingale)

In the face of opposition from her family, who were very wealthy, Florence chose to train in nursing and steadfastly accomplished her goal. After heading a private nursing institute in London, she distinguished herself through her dedication and loving care of the wounded in the Crimean War, then devoted the rest of her life, despite much personal illness and infirmity, to reforming nursing care. As an Anglican, she was an outstanding example to others in her personal spirituality until her death at 90 years of age.

Canon A. M. Allchin writes of Florence Nightingale: "...It is not easy at this length of time to envisage quite how restricted were the activities of a mid-Victorian lady...although [Florence] herself never became a member, or should one say the superior, of a community, her problems are very similar to those of her contemporaries who in fact entered the Anglican sisterhoods. She was facing all the weight of social convention, and the pitch of her feelings is plain in a private note which she wrote in 1851 [at age 31]:  'Women don't consider themselves as human being at all. There is absolutely no God, no country, no duty to them at all, except family...I have known a good deal of convents. And, of course, everyone has talked of the petty tyrannies supposed to be exercised there. But I know nothing like the petty grinding tyranny of a good English family...'

Greatly disenchanted by organized religion generally, and with the Evangelical wing of the Church of England in particular, her feelings spilled over into strong feelings about the Church itself: 'The Church of England has for men bishoprics, archbishoprics, and a little work [sic!]...For women she has -- what? I had no taste for theological discoveries. I would have given her my head, my hand, my heart. She would not have them. She did not know what to do with them. She told me to go back and do crochet in my mother's drawing roo; or, if I were tired of that, to marry and look well at the head of my husband's table. You may go to Sunday School if you like it, she said. But she gave me no training even for that. She gave me neither work to do for her, nor education for it...'

Nevertheless, she retained a deep Christian faith and received the Eucharist up to the time of her death, and even began writing a book on mysticism. She herself admits in her diary that, during a trip to Egypt in 1849, she had five mystical experiences of Christ. Though she never finished the book, through necessity of caring for her widowed mother after the death of her father, some of what she wrote gives us a sense of what was in the depths of her heart: 'Religion is not devotion, but work and suffering for the love of God. This the true doctrine of the Mystics...Where shall I find God? In myself...I must be in a state for Him to come and dwell in me. That is the whole aim of the mystical life...' 

Loving God,...Give power, wisdom and gentleness
to those who follow the lead of Florence Nightingale,
that they, bearing with them your presence,
may not only heal but the darkest hours of pain and fear..."


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

"The First Flower In My Garden"

"Clare was the first flower in the garden of the Poor Man of Assisi. Poor in earthly goods, but rich in her utter poverty, she was a replica of Jesus, poor in the crib and on the Cross. At her time the Church generally and many Church men were enmeshed in financial matters and political maneuvering. Through the renewal of the ideal of poverty, St. Francis effected a 'reform of Christian life in head and members.'

In our...century there still remain large areas with millions suffering under extreme poverty. Poverty in itself is no virtue, but it should be made into a virtue...

These considerations should make poverty more attractive and lovable to us again. Whoever has poverty as his companion should embrace her, live joyfully with her, and be grateful for her realm of spiritual riches. And those who have money must cherish the spirit of poverty. How we ought to love a certain responsory that keeps recurring throughout this month:
Two things I have asked of Thee,
deny them not to me before I die:
Give me neither beggary nor riches!
Allow me only the necessities for life.

At least we can be moderate and frugal, and thereby find the way to the spirit of Christian poverty. St. Clare, help us."
(Fr. Pius Parsch, The Church's Year of Grace, Vol. 4)

Monday, August 9, 2010

Remembering Two Sisters

Rosa Adelheid Stein (1883 - 1942 in Auschwitz)
Edith Hedwig Stein [St. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross, OCD] (1891 - 1942 in Auschwitz)

Jewish blood sisters.
Spiritual sisters in the Catholic faith.
Sisters in the Order of Carmel: Edith, as a professed nun; Rosa, as a lay-extern/portress.
Sisters in the Nazi prison camps of Amersfoort, Westerbork, and Auschwitz.
Sisters in death in Auschwitz, August 9, 1942.

Unfortunately, many people aren't aware that there were also other Stein family members who lost their lives in the Holocaust:
 - Paul Stein (1872 - 1943), eldest brother of Rosa and Edith, along with his wife, Trude [Gertrude] Stein (1872 - 1943), at Theresienstadt.
- Frieda [Elfriede] Stein Tworoger (1881- 1942), sister of Rosa and Edith, at Theresienstadt.
- Eva Stein (1915-1943), niece of Rosa and Edith, daughter of their brother Arno Stein and his wife, Martha.

Susanne Batzdorff, niece of Rosa and Edith, and daughter of their sister, Erna, writes:
"After all these years, it is still extremely painful for me to think about the tragic end of Rosa and Edith Stein, but I have wondered whether in those days and hours of horror and fear their togetherness may have given them strength and comfort. There is a passage in Jewish liturgy, concerning the slaughter of the martyrs...'Beloved and true were they in life, and even in death they were not divided.' That is how I picture Rosa and Edith. Alone, Edith could have found asylum in Switzerland, but she refused to accept refuge without Rosa, and in the end they met death together..." (Susanne M. Batzdorff, Aunt Edith: The Jewish Heritage of a Catholic Saint, Templegate, 1998)

Do you want to be totally united to the Crucified?
If you are serious about this, you will be present,
by the power of His Cross, at every front, at every
place of sorrow, bringing to those who suffer comfort,
healing, and salvation;

St. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross, OCD
From an unpublished meditation



Sunday, August 8, 2010

"Do Not Be Afraid"

"Do not be afraid."
Ever notice how often that's repeated in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures? Since it's spoken frequently by God, you get the impression that it's pretty important advice! "Do not be afraid...for I will make of you a great  nation." (Genesis 46)  "Let not your heart faint, do not fear...for the Lord your God is the One who goes with you." (Deuteronomy 20)  "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God." (Luke 1)  "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary for your wife..." (Matthew 1)  "Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows." (Luke 12)  "Do not be afraid, Paul..." (Acts 27)  "Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living One."

Fear is real, and everyone of us must deal with it throughout our lives. Children often fear the dark and need a light left on; or ghosts and monsters, or big animals; or that Dad or Mom will leave them. Young adults live in fear of being embarrassed, of being made fun of; of standing out in a crowd; of being rejected by a girlfriend or boyfriend; of the uncertainty of the future or of life in general. Adults fear being unsuccessful, of not accomplishing something lasting. There's perhaps fear that a spouse may no longer love one. We're fearful about financial security, and about our children: their values, their safety, their choices in life. Once we reach the sunset of life we often fear for our health, our dwindling abilities, physical and mental. We may be fearful of becoming a burden for our family. And we fear having to face our own death.

As human beings we find it easier to deal with fear, to make it bearable, through faith and hope. If our relationship with God in Christ is truly a priority for us, we will come to trust in God's assurance, God's Word, and be able to stake everything on it.

Abraham, of course, has been a traditional and preeminent model of faith, for a number of reasons. The liturgical readings for today (Genesis 15:1-6 and Hebrews 11:1-3; 8-16) clearly allude to one of them. In the Genesis reading, Abram (this is before God renames him "Abraham" = "father of a multitude" in Genesis 17) frets over the fact that he's still childless, and that his servant, Eliezar, will legally become his heir. In a dramatic gesture, God allays his fear with the assurance: "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them...So shall your descendants be." The Genesis writer comments: "And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as sedaqa = rightness, rectitude, virtue." In other words, Abram, in taking God at God's Word, in trusting God, treated their relationship as the reality that it really was: as kids today would term it, it was "all good", the understanding between them was "cool". And the unspoken corollary is that it was all clearly on God's loving initiative, with Abram adding his own free, loving consent and commitment.

The reading from Luke is expressed in much the same terms. In the 10 verses before this passage, Jesus had been urging the disciples: "Do not worry..." (Luke 12;22) Don't worry even about the basic things: food, or clothing for the body. He reminds them of three things: 1) that worrying and anxiety doesn't "add a single hour to your span of life..."; 2) that the concern of the surrounding culture over economic systems, financial security, acquiring goods or maintaining what one already possesses isn't his standard, nor should it be that of his followers; and 3) that the Father already knows what they need, "...and these things will be given to you as well."

Luke's Jesus continues: "Do not be afraid, little poimnion = group or flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the basileía = realm, reign, kingdom". In both Matthew 3 and earlier in Luke 10, Jesus referred to "reign of God" being at hand, right here, so close and present as to actually be "within you",  If the "reign" is Godself, God's Presence in the risen Christ, then what the Father delights to give us is what a contemporary theologian, Christopher Pramuk, commenting on Hagia Sophia = Holy Wisdom in Thomas Merton's writings, describes as: "...the Spirit of Christ but more than Christ. She is the Love joining the Father, Son, and Spirit that longs for incarnation from before the very beginning...the 'pivot' (le point vierge = the virgin[al] point) of nature...and all creation in God from the beginning. Perhaps most of all...Sophia is our 'true self,' when we (like Mary, seat of Wisdom) allow Christ to be birthed in us, and so realize the hidden ground of mercy, creativity, and presence in our very selves, the mystical Body of Christ. The moment her name awakens in us a sense of mercy, communion, and presence, not symbolic, but real, more than literally real. The remembrance of Sophia opens onto a mystical-political spirituality of engagement in the world..." (Christopher Pramuk, Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton, Liturgical Press, 2009, pp. 207-208)

You and I would do well to take time to think about what that means. And if that doesn't help you and me to not be afraid, I can't imagine what else would!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Transfiguration of Jesus - August 6

A bishop was astonished to hear a little boy say that a person must be brave to go to church.
"Why do you say that?", the bishop asked.
"Well," said the boy, "I heard my uncle tell my aunt last Sunday that there was a canon in the pulpit, the choir murdered the anthem, and the organist drowned the choir!"

Far more serious things, I believe, threaten the gathering of God's people, the Church. Yet, as St. Peter exclaims in the Gospel story of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), " is good for us to be here..." And that is true because our coming together in Eucharist, in thanksgiving, to Jesus is our refuge as we struggle to live in a world of problems, tragedy, disappointment, suffering and bad news. It's a center for renewal, encouragement and refreshment from which we can go back to face those challenges with the Good News of hope and love, proclaimed by Jesus.

The message of the Transfiguration is precisely that there's hope for all of us because God has promised us God's abiding presence, and we have that assurance in Jesus, God's beloved, favored Son. The church of the author of the 2nd Epistle of Peter, c. 30-40 years after Peter's death, deals with much the same things as we do today, particularly the frequent distortion of the Christian message and tradition. 2nd Peter emphasizes the promises which God has made to us, enabling us to avoid such distortion and corruption of what Jesus has taught us.

"1 Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have received a faith as precious as ours through the righteousness of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ:
2 May grace and peace be yours in abundance in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.
3 His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4 Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants in the divine nature. 5 For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, 6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, 7 and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. 8 For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 For anyone who lacks these things is short-sighted and blind, and is forgetful of the cleansing of past sins. 10 Therefore, brothers and sisters, be all the more eager to confirm your call and election, for if you do this, you will never stumble. 11 For in this way, entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ will be richly provided for you..."

We all fight demons from within and without: from within, because there are times in life when we forget or foolishly turn away from the "precious and very great promises." Can we wonder, then, why we become "short-sighted and blind"? 2nd Peter's community also faced what we face today: demons from without: accusations by those without faith that we have no right, no "proof" to make such claims, that we're simply falling for "myths".

"...12 Therefore I intend to keep on reminding you of these things, though you know them already and are established in the truth that has come to you. 13 I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to refresh your memory, 14 since I know that my death will come soon, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. 15 And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things. 16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For he received honour and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ 18 We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain..."

For critics and enemies of the Church, all this teaching about Jesus' second coming, much less his first coming, is a humanly devised story, made up to control naive people. 2nd Peter makes two things clear. 1) Peter was an eyewitness to the Transfiguration. It really happened, and the tradition about the second coming isn't just rumor. 2) Godself honors and glorifies Jesus in the Transfiguration. God proclaims: "This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." The experience of the Transfiguration, therefore, isn't made up or secondhand. It really happened, and God's power and majesty which Peter beholds on Mt. Tabor is prophetic and symbolic of how Jesus will be when he appears again to judge the living and the dead. The prophetic message about Jesus' coming again in power, which God revealed, which the Apostles preached and handed down, and which the Church continues to proclaim, has a firm foundation: God's own word and Spirit.

"...19 So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, 21 because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God."

Jesus, in the Transfiguration, is assured that his impending passion and death isn't the end of the story. The cross is but a preliminary to full glorification in the Resurrection and Ascension. This Transfiguration event in Jesus' life which we celebrate today is God's promise in the process of being fulfilled now and made real for us, each day, as Jesus the Morning Star rises and will finally and fully rise "in [our] hearts" -- in us -- never to set.  That's the reality, the hope, the Good News, which we're to live with and to share in our families, our places of work, and among our friends.

Is it believable? Is it possible?
An unknown 15th century poet put it this way:

Thou shalt know him when he comes,
Not by any din of drums,
Nor by the vantage of his airs,
Nor by anything he wears,
Neither by his crown, 
Nor by his gown,
For his presence known shall be
By the holy harmony
Which his coming makes in thee.