Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sine dominico non possumus!

The days move inexorably on. That sounds like and is, in fact, a weary statement, but not a hopeless one. A week or so ago, while considering everything in my own life, lives of those about whom I care, and the world in general, which seems to be getting worse by the day, even as we in the West continue to live in our bubble and pursue our destructive cultural-political path, a verse from St Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians popped into my mind: "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all" (1 Cor 15:19). Sooner or later reality bears this truth out for all of us.

Earlier this week I was struck by something Hank Hanagraaf, host of the "Bible Answer Man" radio program said in a monologue: "Christ's resurrection is a game-changer." Then yesterday a friend shared a great insight by William T. Cavanaugh: "What makes martyrdom possible is the eschatological belief that nothing depends on the martyr's continued [mortal] life; if he or she dies, that death is not ultimate..."

At least for me, one of the important aspects of Sunday, of gathering to celebrate the Sacred Liturgy, is not only to be reminded, but to participate in, even if in a mediated way, the event of Christ's resurrection.

Sine dominico non possumus! (i.e., "Without Sunday we cannot live"). As he did with so many things, Pope Benedict pointed this out beautifully and simply: "The Sunday precept is not, therefore, an externally imposed duty, a burden on our shoulders. On the contrary, taking part in the Celebration, being nourished by the Eucharistic Bread and experiencing the communion of their brothers and sisters in Christ is a need for Christians, it is a joy; Christians can thus replenish the energy they need to continue on the journey we must make every week."

I long for life, for that life that is truly life. There is only One who gives this; the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The Eucharist I will participate in today is but a down-payment on future glory. I believe this with my heart, even when I am otherwise underwhelmed.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Peter and the papacy: a call to sacrificial service

Our readings today, especially our readings from the Old Testament and from St Matthew's Gospel, give us insight into the nature of the papacy, as originally established by Jesus Christ.

Peter is to be a servant of the master like Eliakim, not like Shebna. As such, he is to be a father to the household of faith. As John Martens points out in his excellent reflection on these readings, "Rock-Solid Authority," "We know a fair bit about this time, as the history concerning these figures appears in Isaiah 36-39 and 1 Kgs 18-20."

The papacy is a service, a ministry, and not a power trip. Of all the titles that belong to the Bishop of Rome, which includes titles such as Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Sovereign Of Vatican City State, my favorite is Servant of the servants of God.

"The Calling of St Matthew, by Caravaggio, 1599-1600

In his first lengthy interview last year, conducted by his fellow Jesuit, Fr Antonio Spadaro, and published in America magazine as "A Big Heart Open to God," Pope Francis spoke about his experience of becoming Pope. He told of coming to Rome as a Cardinal prior to being selected to walk in the shoes of the Galilean fisherman and spending time in the Basilica of St. Mary Major contemplating Caravaggio's painting "The Calling of St Matthew":
“That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew.” Here the pope becomes determined, as if he had finally found the image he was looking for: “It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as pontiff.” Then the pope whispers in Latin: “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance"
Let's not forget the powerful witness of Pope Benedict XVI, who, recognizing he could no longer fulfill the duties of the papacy, humbly renounced it and now lives a life of solitude and prayer.

Friday, August 22, 2014

"You're one of my kind"

This past Monday the mother of a friend of mine who took his own life back in June, contacted me about about some things of his she thought I might be interested in, or for which I might have a use. The items were two statues and book.

The statues are of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Thérèse of Lisieux. I was able to give the statue of Our Blessed Mother to a friend who passed through some dire straits a several years ago. I was able to give it to her today, on the Feast of the Queenship of Mary. This lovely friend has not only survived, but is positively thriving. Seeing her thrive does me so much good, especially when confronted with the suicide of someone who seemed to have so much going for him. Both of these friends are truly lovely and loving people. I am not going to go a digression concerning suicide from the perspective of Catholic morality, Why? Because I have already done that (see "Judging someone who commits suicide").

Since it is a very heavy garden statue, I am putting the Little Flower in one of our gardens as a way to memorialize my friend and to insure that I remember to pray for him, especially seeking the intercession of the Little Flower on his behalf. She always longed to be a missionary.

Our Blessed Mother (l) and St. Thérèse of Lisieux (r)

The book I inherited was one that my friend bought at my urging and that played a pivotal role in his return to practicing the Catholic faith and completing his Christian initiation by receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation: Matthew Kelly's Rediscovering Catholicism: A Spiritual Guide to Living with Passion and Purpose. It was in Kelly's fine book that I read- "Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. Hope is one of those things that you can't buy, but that will be freely given to you if you ask. Hope is the one thing people cannot live without. Hope is a thing of beauty."

Late last week as I was poking around the website of the U.K.'s Catholic Herald newspaper (the U.K. equivalent perhaps of the National Catholic Register) I came across an article about a most interesting person: Simone Lia, a Catholic artist and author. In this article, in which she describes her journey back to the faith, she tells of the role the INXS song "Need You Tonight" played in that return
It was June 2007 and Simone Lia was on her way to home to pray. She was mulling over a recent romance which had abruptly ended via email. “So I was thinking: ‘I’m really going to go home and pray about this,‘and have this out with God’,” she recalls, “But then I thought: ‘No, I can’t even wait until I get home.’ So I kind of did it there and then in Leicester Square. I was fed up and I was doing that thing when you blame God.”

Eventually, it dawned on Lia, as she “ranted and raved” at God, that the music pulsating through the bar walls was familiar. “It was an INXS song, ‘Need You Tonight’. I used to like them when I was younger and I was listening to the lyrics. I felt that God was speaking to me through the lyrics, which is a bit ridiculous.

“I was really lost in the moment and I was having a little dance in Leicester Square. I felt like I was dancing with God and he was there.

“Anyway, after that happened the song finished and I felt in my self a sense that I needed to have this adventure with God. I had a sort of vision in my mind of the pages of a book flicking, and it was the book that I ended up writing. I saw it in my mind’s eye and I felt so inspired to try and have this adventure with God, and to record it all as a graphic novel”
This resonated with me because, quite apart from those who are so dismissive of everything and anything that emanates from contemporary culture, I have these kinds of experiences quite frequently, perhaps not as ecstatic and explicit as the one Simone describes, but certainly real.

A panel from Lia's book Please God, Find Me a Husband

You might've guessed our Friday traditio for this week is INXS' "Need You Tonight." It bears noting that Michael Hutchence, the lead singer and frontman for INXS took his own life back in November 1997.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Authenticity as a form of falsehood

Paradoxically, doesn’t the “search” for authenticity consist precisely in ceasing to search and just being yourself? Maybe the authentic you that you envision is the most pernicious false self imaginable.

As Pater Tom (Merton) averred: “It is often more perfect to do what is simply normal and human than to try to act like an angel when God does not will it. That is, when there is no need for it, except in the stubborn passion of our own impatience with ourselves.”

Preaching Jesus Christ, the breaker of barriers

It has been quite awhile, almost a year, in fact, since I have offered any critical notes on preaching that arise from being a member of a congregation listening to a preacher. Considering our readings for today, the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, which tells of Jesus' encounter with Canaanite woman in the region of Tyre and Sidon (Matt 15:21-28), it is clear that Jesus breaks down barriers by offering, not the salvation He came to bring, but the salvation He is to everyone, making all who trust in Him members of His chosen and holy people. This was made most explicit by St Paul in his Letter to the Galatians, even as it is noted far less explicitly in our second reading for today, taken from the apostle's Letter to the Romans: "Thus Abraham 'believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.' Realize then that it is those who have faith who are children of Abraham. Scripture, which saw in advance that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, foretold the good news to Abraham, saying, 'Through you shall all the nations be blessed.' Consequently, those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham who had faith" (Gal 3:6-9).

With that lead-in I offer the following observations:

Consider this:

When preaching on the universal salvation offered by God through Christ, who breaks down barriers, as exhibited by today’s Gospel, you must be careful not to veer off into universalism, even by implication, or just plain sloppiness. Preaching on certain things requires the preacher “to do” theology. When you choose to preach on a theme, like the universal salvation offered in Christ, please do your homework.

Jesus and the Canaanite woman, by Juan de Flandes, ca. 1500

Consider this:

Not everyone who has died is in heaven. As Catholics, in addition to heaven and hell, we dogmatically believe in Purgatory. Also, the Church is the ordinary and normative means of salvation. Hence, the Church, baptism, the Eucharist, are not incidental to anyone’s salvation, even those who might be saved extraordinarily. Let's assist each other in avoiding the trap of presumption. The Canaanite woman is a great model for not being presumptuous, by-the-way. Her humility, persistence, and love presents us a great reason why we need to ground our theology in Scripture rather than trying to use Scripture as a jumping-off point for our theological pre(mis)conceptions.

Frankly, I fail to see the efficacy of pointing people away from Christ’s Body, the Church.

"He lost his ability to love or be loved"

Last night I took the risk of re-watching Terry Gilliam's 1991 movie The Fisher King, which starred Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges. Williams plays "Parry," a man, a former professor, rendered mentally unstable by the traumatic event of his wife's brutal murder, which happened right before his eyes and was precipitated, not carried out by, but likely caused by Jeff Bridges' character, Jack, a Howard Stern-like shock-jock. It is an amazing movie. I thought so back when I first watched it. I saw it at the cinema and, a few years later, watched it again on videotape. It is a modern take on the quest for the Holy Grail and a tremendously moving one at that.

In a pivotal scene, Parry takes Jack to Central Park at night to engage in what he calls "cloud busting." According to Parry "cloud busting," which is laying on your back and staring at the night sky, is best done nude. So, Parry takes of his clothes and dances about, which makes Jack uncomfortable. Jack, who is broken by what happened and who realizes Parry is a victim of his shock-jocking, but is no less self-absorbed, starts to leave, but just can't. Remaining clothed, Jack lies next to the nude Parry as they contemplate the full moon. It is then that Parry tells the story of the Fisher King:
Then let's begin with the story itself.

It's a story of the Grail myth...And although there are several variations, my favorite begins with the Fisher King as a young boy... who had to spend a night alone in the forest to prove his courage... and during that night, he is visited by a sacred vision. Out of the fire, appears the Holy Grail - God's highest symbol of divine grace. And a voice says to the boy, "You shall be the guardian of the Grail, that it may heal the hearts of men"...But the boy was overcome ...Innocent and foolish, he was blinded by greater visions - a life ahead filled with beauty and glory, hope and power...Tears filled his eyes as he sensed his own... invincibility. A boy's tears of naive wonder and inspiration. and in this state of...radical amazement...he felt for a brief moment, not like a boy, but like God... (Jack listens intently) ...And so he reached into the fire to take the Grail. And the Grail vanished. And the boy hands were left caught in the flames...leaving him wounded and ashamed at what his recklessness had lost him. When he became King, he was determined to reclaim his destiny and find the Grail... But with each year that passed, with each campaign he fought, the Grail remained lost, and this wound he suffered in the fire grew worse... He became a bitter man. Life for him lost it's reason. With each disappointment, with each betrayal... with each loss ... this wound would grow... Soon the land began to spoil from neglect and his people starved...Until finally, the King lost all faith in God's existence and in man's value...He lost his ability to love or be loved And he was so sick with experience... that he started to die. As the years went on, his bravest knights would search for the Grail that would heal their King and make them the most respected and valued men in the land, but to no avail.

Pretty soon, finding the Grail became a ruthless struggle between ambitious men vying for the King's power, which only confirmed the King's worst suspicions of man, causing his wound to grow. His only hope, he thought, was death. Then one day, a fool was brought in to the King to cheer him. He was a simple-minded man... not particularly skilled...or admired... He tells the King some jokes...sing him some songs, but the King feels even worse...Finally, the fool says, "What is it that hurts you so much? How can I help?"...And the King says, "I need a sip of water to cool my throat"...So, the fool takes a cup from the bedstand, fills it with water and hands it to the King...Suddenly, the King feels a lot better. And when he looks to his hands, he sees that it was the Holy Grail the fool handed ordinary cup that had been beside his bed all along...And the King asks, "How can this be? could you find what all my knights and wisest men could not find"? And the fool answers, "I don't know. I only knew you were thirsty."... And for the first time since he was a boy, the King felt more than a man - not because he was touched by God's glory...but rather, by the compassion of a fool
Later in the movie, Parry and Jack go cloud busting again, but Jack, too, does it in the nude.

I love Michael Card's song "God's Own Fool," the chorus of which goes as follows:
"So we follow God's own Fool
For only the foolish can tell
Believe the unbelievable, come be a fool as well."

Saturday, August 16, 2014

God is merciful and worthy of praise

In our second reading for this Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, taken from St Paul's Letter to the Romans, we hear: "For God delivered all to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all" (Rom 11:32). At least for me, this sentence seems to be the interpretive key for our readings this week. The Greek word translated as "delivered" in the New American Bible, which is used in the Lectionary for Roman Catholics in the United States, transliterated as sugkleio, means to "shut up on all sides," or "to enclose." So, God permits everyone to be enclosed by disobedience so that He might have mercy on us all.

In light of our first reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah, which looks forward to "foreigners," that is, non-Jews, joining "themselves to the LORD," and serving him, "loving the name of the LORD, and becoming his servants" (Isa 56:6), along with Paul's reference to salvation coming to the Gentiles, in order to make God's chosen people, Paul's people, "jealous," it is no wonder that our Psalm response is "O God, let all the nations praise you!".

There is no better way to illustrate this theology than Jesus' encounter with the Canaanite woman during His sojourn in the region of Tyre and Sidon. She called to Jesus using a messianic greeting, which is a bit odd considering she was not a Jew. She cried out, "Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon" (Matt 15:22). At first it seemed that Jesus was ignoring her. But she was so relentless in her cry for mercy that the Lord's disciples implored Him, "Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us" (Matt 15:23). Jesus, as it seems He often did, replied to their request obliquely, saying, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt 15:24). These words seem to mean that He was not going to heed her cry, but neither was He going to send her away.

Then, the woman came right up to Him, did Him homage, and implored, "Lord, help me" (Matt 15:25). To this Jesus, referring back to His declaration that He was sent only to gather the lost sheep of Israel, stated, "It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs" (Matt 15:26). The children are Israelites and the dogs are Gentiles (i.e., all non-Jewish people). In Jesus' day the terms "dog" and "swine" were Jewish terms of contempt for Gentiles. Rather than being cruel, it seems that Jesus was making a point, not to the poor woman, but His other hearers, most likely His own disciples.

Christ and the Canaanite Woman, by Germain-Jean Drouais, 1784

The woman's humble reply to Jesus' seemingly harsh and dismissive words moves Him deeply: "She said, 'Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters'" (Matt 15:27). In the presence of the Lord, who is, as Origen described Him, autobasileia, "the Kingdom in person," she was content to eat scraps from the table.

In the first volume of his three-volume work on the life of Jesus, Pope Benedict wrote:
Jesus himself is the Kingdom; the Kingdom is not a thing, it is not a geographical dominion like worldly kingdoms. It is a person; it is he. On this interpretation, the term "Kingdom of God" is itself a veiled Christology. By the way in which he speaks of the Kingdom of God, Jesus leads men to realize the overwhelming fact that in him God himself is present among them, that he is God's presence (49)
In light of her response, Jesus could not but say, "O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish" (Matt 15:28). As He spoke the demon left her daughter, who was healed.

The point is not that in order for our prayers to be answered we must grovel. The point is that Jesus has mercy on those who are humbled by life's circumstances and yet still call out to Him in faith, call out to Him from their great need, recognizing their dependence on Him. It seems to me that living through what we are living through these days, violence in Syria, Iraq, and the Holy Land, the whole debacle in Ferguson, Missouri, the suicide of Robin Williams, which caused comedian Jim Gaffigan to tweet this week: "Is it me or are things on this planet just getting worse by the minute?," that we too need to cry out to God for mercy. The prayer revealed to St Faustina seems well-suited for this heartfelt plea: "For the sake of His sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world."

The Servant of God Msgr Luigi Giussani expressed this well in his testimony, given publicly before Pope St John Paul II in 1998, when was advanced in age and getting quite frail: "Existence expresses itself, as ultimate ideal, in begging. The real protagonist of history is the beggar: Christ who begs for man's heart, and man's heart that begs for Christ." This week let's take a lesson from the Canaanite woman by praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy each day during the 3:00 PM hour. "Jesus, I trust in You."

Friday, August 15, 2014

Life, death, and the Blessed Virgin's Assumption

Today is the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Blessed Virgin's being bodily assumed into heaven shows us the power of Christ's resurrection. The Virgin Mary was the first to believe that Jesus is the Christ. In the Catechism we read, "The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son's Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians" (par 966). So, a happy solemnity to one and all. For those who observe meatless Fridays, it is not appropriate to do so today. So, have a cheeseburger, pray the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary, and go to Mass!

You may have heard that Robin Williams died this week. I don't mind saying that my two favorite movies he was in are The Fisher King and Dead Poet's Society. So, our Friday traditio is one of my favorite scenes from the latter film:

I think this very true and accurate:
We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Heeding the Lord's call, overcoming fear

This Sunday's readings continue in the same dramatic mode as those of the past few weeks. No matter how many times I encounter the event of St Peter walking across the water to where the Lord was, before faltering and beginning to sink, I have a tendency to ask, "Why did he let himself sink?" But the answer is simple: fear. Upon noticing "how strong the wind was" he was scared an began to doubt whether he could remain walking on the water, whether he could make to where Jesus was.

The take away, as I see it, is that we, too, have to learn that our desire to go to where Jesus is, in the first instance, requires us to get out of the boat, which means overcoming both fear and doubt. I know, at least for me, the safety of the boat, even on a stormy sea, is preferable to stepping out of it. We sometimes hear people say about sky-diving, "You'll never catch me jumping out of a perfectly good airplane." For most of us, this understandable. Certainly being a Christian does not require us to go sky-diving, bungee jumping, or para-sailing. It does require us to step out of the safety of the boat to meet the Lord where He is. In terms of discipleship, this should cause us to ask, "What do I fear? What doubts, fears, hesitancy keeps me from walking towards Jesus?"

Like Peter, we can only take a first step towards the Lord, who invariably summons us. As we take our first steps, we, too, will begin to notice the strong winds and waves of life, which will probably cause us to look backwards at the boat. But we need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and realize that it is His power and His power alone that makes this journey possible. As we make our way to Him the winds and waves will continue blowing on us and crashing around us, causing us to fear and doubt.

I find the most encouraging part of this whole episode to be when Peter started to sink. As he sank, "he cried out, 'Lord, save me!'" Upon hearing Peter's cry, we read that "Immediately," that is, without hesitation, "Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter." Once we step out and walk at His summons, Jesus will never let us sink. I have to say, I am not sure what this means in terms of the violence our Christian brothers and sisters are experiencing right now in Northern Iraq.

Elsewhere, in the context of teaching about the Eucharist, Jesus taught, "And this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it [on] the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him [on] the last day" (John 6:39-40). In addition to praying that the violence and terror committed against our Iraqi sisters and brothers, as well as others, including some Muslims, will immediately cease, let us also pray that through the wind of waves now buffeting them, they can keep their eyes fixed on Jesus, who summons them towards Himself.

Today and every Sunday the Lord summons us to the Eucharist. He calls us out of our pews to walk towards Him in order that we may see Him and so He may fill us with life, which is nothing other than Himself by the power of the Holy Spirit. When we falter, our cry for help, for salvation, is going to confession, something we should do with more rather than less frequency. By so doing we can experience for ourselves both how He immediately saves us and savor the sweetness, a down payment, on what who He saves us for.

Friday, August 8, 2014

"Oh your mouth is poison, your mouth is wine"

What a world we live in. Each day I really find it more and more unbelievable and very disheartening. But I will spare myself and everyone else this morning.

In the face of everything, I realize this probably doesn't even rise to the level of trivial, but The Civil Wars, true to their name, announced they were breaking up this week. They were our Friday traditio just a little while ago, but I think their song "Poison and Wine" is a fine traditio for this week.

I wish you'd hold me when I turn my back
The less I give the more I get back
Oh your hands can heal, your hands can bruise
I don't have a choice but I'd still choose you