Saturday, August 30, 2014

Year A Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Jer 20:7-9; Ps 63:2-9; Rom 12:1-2; Matt 16:21-27

In our second reading for today St Paul urges the Christians of ancient Rome, a community that was no stranger to persecution, to offer their bodies “as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” as an act of worship (Rom 12:1). The apostle went on to tell them how: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom 12:2). Offering acceptable sacrifice is what priests do. Even as Catholics we believe that by virtue of our Baptism and our anointing at Confirmation we share in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ. We are called to carry out our priestly ministry daily by putting ourselves completely at God’s disposal in whatever we do.

Our first reading from the book of the prophet Jeremiah gives us a deep insight into what this means exactly. Jeremiah was a kohen, that is, a priest, which was most certainly not a pre-condition for being a prophet. In our reading Jeremiah complains about being “duped” by God, not just once, but over and over again. His faithful response to God’s call caused him to be an object of laughter and mocking, caused him to be derided by others, who thought we was nuts for doing and saying the things God asked him to do and say. As a result, he determined time and again to ignore the word of God, saying to himself, “I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more” (Jer 20:9). But God overcomes him and, once again, he acts in accord with what God asks of him.

Jeremiah, by Michelangelo, 1512

This is brought to its culmination in our Gospel for today. Jesus calls us to die to ourselves and selflessly live for others for His sake. He goes so far as to say that whoever does not lose his/her life for His sake is the one who will surely die. Stated simply, dying to ourselves is, paradoxically, the only path to life. It is the true imitation of Christ.

It must be noted that Jesus speaks here in quite absolute terms, saying “Whoever” (meaning anyone) that would follow Him, “must deny himself” (Matt 16:24). In other words, this is not an option. Because of our sinful nature, dying to ourselves in order serve others for Christ’s sake is something we are both unable and unwilling to do on our own. To do this we need God’s help. We call God’s necessary, unearned, and undeserved help “grace.” Therefore, we must make use of all the means of grace that God puts at our disposal. Foremost among these are the sacraments. While our participation in the Eucharist is as obvious as it is necessary, we must not absent ourselves from the Sacrament of Penance either. Frequently receiving the graces given us in this sacrament is necessary to follow Jesus because, if nothing else (and there is plenty), it is a way of recognizing our dependence on Him. It is also a way to overcome presumption. What do I mean by “presumption”?

We can rest securely in the fact that God loves us. There is no greater proof of God’s love for us than His only begotten Son hanging on the Cross to pay a debt He didn’t owe because we owed a debt we couldn’t pay. God wants a relationship with each one of us individually and with all of us together. What other person who we truly love would we offend and not seek her/his forgiveness and to be reconciled? Would we ever just think, “Yea, I know did something terrible to her, but she loves me and will just forgive me. There is no need to apologize, or ask for forgiveness”? To do so is what it means to be presumptuous in this context.

In the sixteenth chapter of St Matthew’s Gospel, from which we also read last Sunday, we see that once Peter confessed Jesus to be Lord and Messiah, he began to imagine the triumphant coming of God’s kingdom, perhaps envisioning himself in a leading role. Peter did not like that Jesus was to “suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised” (Matt 16:21). This drew a sharp response from Peter: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you” (Matt 16:22). Jesus told Peter that he was not thinking as God thinks, but in a very human way, a very self-centered way, a way he had to overcome, a way he did overcome, as his death as a martyr, likely during the Neronian persecution in Rome, demonstrated.

Jesus never taught using only using words. He led the way to the Father, so much so that He is the Way. Jesus came to do the will of the Father. During His earthly sojourn He loved the Father so much that He found doing the will of the One who sent Him irresistible, which is why He went to the Cross, but not before praying, “if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt 26:39). It is true that in the Eucharist Jesus gives us Himself body, blood, soul, and divinity. But let’s not forget that the Eucharist is an exchange of gifts. He asks nothing less of us than ourselves, body, blood, soul, and humanity.

James Foley

In these troubled days we are shown daily what it means to be transformed like St Paul, whose own transformation into the image of Christ was brought about through suffering. We saw it in the life and death of photojournalist James Foley and we see it in the lives, suffering, and deaths of many, Christian martyrs in Iraq and Syria, whose names we do not know, but who are certainly known to God.

James Foley went to Syria, and prior to that, to Libya, where he was also held captive for some time, in the service of truth. In the words of his Mom, he went to Syria in an effort “to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people.” In doing so, he wound up suffering along with them, which ended with him being killed, but not until after he was tortured. Among the ways he was tortured, as relayed by a fellow captive, who was released, included him being mockingly crucified against a wall. In a stark reminder to us that it is never alright to do evil that good may come of it, Foley’s captors also water-boarded him. Through it all he maintained his faith, prayed the Rosary, all the while encouraging his fellow captives, seeking to give them hope. James Foley, a follower of Jesus Christ, gave a striking testimony to something greater than all the violence of this world by living the mystery of the Holy Cross. There is no greater way of being in solidarity with someone than suffering with them. The word “compassion” literally means “to suffer with,” or alongside, another.

My sisters and brothers, following God’s will is not often, perhaps not even usually, the easy path. This is what Jeremiah and Jesus show us today. This week, let’s prayerfully ponder this question, posed to us by Jesus in today's Gospel: “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Matt 16:26). By doing so I pray that each one of us, through the concrete circumstances of our lives, “may discern what is the will of God” for us, “what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom 12:2).

Friday, August 29, 2014

Suicide, anger and fear

When I first read Henry Rollin's LA Weekly article on Robin Williams' suicide it kind of pissed me off. But then I thought of my own personal and pastoral experiences with suicide and remembered (I had forgotten because the news of Williams' death came during a summer that has been positively miserable for me) that anger is a sane and somewhat normal response to someone's suicide. Who is Henry Rollins? He is punk singer, formerly the front man for the thrash punk group Black Flag. He has recorded a number of spoken word albums, hosted a radio show, and is generally a kind of counter-cultural figure. In short he's a guy I have always respected and usually find worth listening to even though we have some quite fundamental disagreements.

Apart from anger, I think the other common response to suicide is fear, which usually remains unexpressed. Very often fear comes in the wake of someone's suicide that nobody else saw coming. This is not helped in the least by the insidious assisted suicide proposals that are becoming so common. In response, many people worry that maybe life will become so unbearable for them that they will seriously consider, or possibly commit, suicide. Let's be honest about this because we almost never are. I have been to wakes, memorial services, and funerals of people who have committed suicide where how their lives ended was not even mentioned. My cousin Mark's funeral would be one of those. This is not an elephant in the room, but a Argentinosaurus!

Such would not be the case at any service at which I preside, preach, or give a prayer. Why? Because it isn't pastoral. I believe it is important to speak to reality, to the circumstances we presumably gather together to face, one that presents a huge challenge to (what Don Giussani might call a provocation) to our Christian faith. In his article, Rollins gives some very good reasons for understanding the reality of suicide by dealing with its aftermath, which gives you many reasons to resist whatever self-destructive impulses you may experience, or not even consider it at all, to see it for what it is.

Here's the bit in Rollin's piece that caused such a backlash:
When someone negates their existence, they cancel themselves out in my mind. I have many records, books and films featuring people who have taken their own lives, and I regard them all with a bit of disdain. When someone commits this act, he or she is out of my analog world. I know they existed, yet they have nullified their existence because they willfully removed themselves from life. They were real but now they are not.

I no longer take this person seriously. I may be able to appreciate what he or she did artistically but it’s impossible to feel bad for them. Their life wasn’t cut short — it was purposely abandoned. It’s hard to feel bad when the person did what they wanted to. It sucks they are gone, of course, but it’s the decision they made. I have to respect it and move on
He later apologized for writing these words. It's okay to be angry about suicide for awhile, but then all of the other things Rollins mentioned earlier in his article come into play, things he wrote about with great awareness and understanding:
I know some people will disagree. And I get that you can’t understand anyone else’s torment. All that “I feel your pain” stuff is bullshit and disrespectful. You can appreciate it, listen and support someone as best you can, but you can’t understand it. Depression is so personal and so unique to each of us that when you’re in its teeth, you think you invented it. You can understand your own, but that’s it. When you are severely depressed, it can be more isolating than anything else you have ever experienced. In trying to make someone understand, you can only speak in approximation. You are truly on your own.

Everyone handles their emotional vicissitudes in their own ways. I am no doctor, but I think the brain is always looking for a sense of balance and normal function so the body can operate efficiently. Some people medicate accordingly, in an attempt to stay somewhat even. That pursuit can lead one down some dark paths. Someone who is an addict might not be an “addict” in the pejorative sense but merely trying to medicate and balance themselves
I agree with that and I also wholeheartedly agree with what Henry wrote about the vampire media- "Sites such as Huffington Post swim in their own brand of hyperbole. They call it news and culture, but often, it’s just content." I also endorse the two word title of Rollin's piece.

When I first read Rollins' article I thought to myself, "Sounds like it was written by someone who struggles himself." In his apology, Rollins wrote, "That I hurt anyone by what I said, and I did hurt many, disgusts me. It was not at all my intent but it most certainly was the result." He went on to write, "I have had a life of depression. Some days are excruciating. Knowing what I know and having been through what I have, I should have known better but I obviously did not. I get so mad when I hear that someone has died this way. Not mad at them, mad at whatever got them there and that no one magically appeared to somehow save them." So maybe it was both fear and anger. Anyway, while it may cause him to either cringe or chuckle, may God bless Henry Rollins and all who suffer mentally, physically, existentially.

Another piece that comes at Robin Williams' death from a perspective worth considering is Damian Thompson's article "Human beings aren't built to handle 'celebrity.'"

"Ride around the lamb to all the little towns"

Yesterday the Roman Catholic Church observed the liturgical memorial of St Augustine, the greatest of the Latin, or Western, Church Fathers. In honor of that day, a friend of mine posted a recipe for Pear Crisp on Facebook. This is a humorous reference to the event about which the Bishop of Hippo Regius wrote in Book II, Chapter 4 of his magnificent work, Confessions, which remains a classic of world literature:
There was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting either for its color or for its flavor. Late one night--having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our bad habit was--a group of young scoundrels, and I among them, went to shake and rob this tree. We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves
Reflecting on this years later as he composed his Confessions, Augustine observed, "It was foul, and I loved it." He went on to write, "I loved my own undoing. I loved my error--not that for which I erred but the error itself." In light of this, perhaps it would be more alluring to bake a stolen pear crisp, only eat half and throw other piece away, or feed it to the dog.

Today the Roman Catholic Church observes the Feast of the Passion of St John the Baptist, who, the Gospels (Mark 6:17-29 and parallel passages) tell us, was beheaded by Herod for denouncing the tin-pot king's unlawful marriage to his sister-in-law Herodias, who had been the wife of his brother Philip. The same friend I mentioned above, who happens to be a theology professor (she was one of my theology professors, which is how I know her), wrote something briefly about a short homily she heard on today's feast: "The priest at daily mass today reminded us that on this feast of the passion of John the Baptist, we have too many new images of people of God being beheaded for their faith and caught in the wrong political web. I have to say, it makes the story even more vivid for me. Pray for us, holy martyrs." Amen.

Decollation of the St John the Baptist, by Caravaggio, 1608 in the Co-Cathedral of Malta at Valetta

In a short section of a book I just started, Who Is a Christian, by Hans Urs Von Balthasar, entitled "Ethics via Statistics," Balthasar which he meditated in a rather straightforward manner about the modern notion of ethics, which are very derived from statistics:
This is most easily ascertained by means of surveys, reports, statistics. The average, derived presumably on the broadest statistical basis, simply shows that most people do not merely belong to the massa damnata but that, in their own way, they are quite well-behaved and even possess something like a "hierarchy of values"... (14)
Remember Judge Robert Bork's contention that we are defining deviancy down?

Just prior to this observation, Von Balthasar wrote about the foundation of ethics in the ancient world, which carried over, at least to some extent, into the Christian conception. Given the fact that the "lofty moral demands" of Christianity, which bids the Christian to "strive to be thankful and selfless" (13), "are [so] alien to the world" (13), he asks contemporary Christians to consider if the lofty demands of following Jesus Christ are not best reserved for heroes (a term from classical literature, used to describe figures like Odysseus, who possess the aristocratic, or heroic, virtue often referred to as arête) and are not for everyone, like those not possessed of arête, or, to use Christian terms, clearly possessed of the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and love. It occurred to me as I wrote this that perhaps Calvinism, with its double-predestination, seeks to make this correction, at least to some extent, or does so unintentionally.

At the beginning of this brief chapter, Von Balthasar rejected the goodness of behavior "based on reward or punishment" (13). By calling such a schema "morally questionable" and "not pure," I think Balthasar might be said to hold that such behavior cannot be truly good because it is neither true (because it is performed for an ulterior motive) nor beautiful (it is not "from the heart," that is, not really creative, but highly conformal). As to the proposal to limit the demands of Christian morality to heroes, known in the Church as saints, most especially martyrs, and linking this to today's feast (even by a thin thread), he pointed to Greek theater and noted that the proper subjects are only heroes and gods. In a parenthetical statement, he notes that for a long time "in the Christian theatre, [only] martyrs or other heroic saints, or at least angels and the like" appear (13-14). Of course, the death of the martyrs in the arena was theater for citizens of ancient Rome in many places throughout the empire.

Given the speculative and incomplete nature of this post, I can think of no better song for our Friday traditio than The Devil Makes Three singing "Do Wrong Right." While I would not claim either St Augustine's or Von Balthasar's imprimatur for this assertion, I believe it has some validity as it certainly trumps- to quote Eliot from "Murder In the Cathedral"- "The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason."

I ain't crazy or a nut just to give you people some
Quiet in the head ain't no way to get it done

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."