Saturday, January 29, 2011

Heaven on Earth: The Way of Christ and the Way of the World (Reflections on the Beatitudes, Matt. 5:1-12, 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

The words of Jesus speak eloquently in and of themselves in today’s Gospel. How then can ordinary individuals like ourselves add anything more to the words uttered by Jesus himself? How can I, tasked with breaking open the message of scripture, even dream of explaining something like the Beatitudes that in their vividness and power, seem to need no further explanation? Perhaps what we need is not so much to add more words to what Jesus has already said, but to actually listen more attentively to what they say.

Maybe what the Beatitudes need is not so much that we add our own words to them, or that we explain each of them in detail. Maybe what they need is to be repeated—for us to hear them again, to listen and look at them a second time, for emphasis, to make them stick, to allow them to really enter into our hearts and not merely our ears.

Blest are the poor in spirit, God’s kingdom is theirs.
Blest are the gentle, they shall inherit the earth.

Blest are those who suffer, they will be consoled.

Blest are those who work for justice, they will be satisfied.

Blest are those who show mercy, God will also be merciful to them.

Blest are the pure in heart, God will show his face to them.
Blest are those who love peace, for they are sons and daughters of God.

Blest are those who are persecuted because of God’s kingdom, heaven is theirs.

The Beatitudes are words of blessing that Jesus pronounced. They are a promise of both earthly and heavenly happiness to those who follow God's way. The Old Testament is also full of such beatitudes or proclamations of blessing and happiness. The psalms, for instance are full of them. But there is a difference between the way the Old Testament pronounced beatitudes and the way Jesus speaks of them. In the Old Testament, these beatitudes contained promises of blessing and happiness that will be granted later on in the future.

With Jesus on the other hand, the beatitudes he proclaims take a future blessing and declare it to be present already, here and now. With Jesus, the promise of grace, blessing, and salvation in the future, is made a reality in the present, in our very midst.

This is what the beatitudes proclaim. The poor are already blest; the sorrowing are already consoled, the merciful and gentle are already receiving their reward, the pure in heart already behold God, the Kingdom is already at hand, heaven is already on earth. But is it, really? Just read the papers and watch the news, and you’ll see that this doesn’t seem to be true. The Kingdom, here in our midst? Heaven, here on earth? You’ve got to be kidding.

But the fact is, that is what Jesus proclaims in the beatitudes. How then are we going to make sense of this? How are we to understand Jesus’ teaching that indeed the future promise is already here? Is not the Kingdom of God still to be fulfilled in some far away time in the future? Can heaven actually be experienced on earth? These are tough questions to answer.

Have you ever had the experience of waiting for someone really important to you? At one point, before I became a priest, I remember there was this girl that I really liked. I remember waiting for her one time, and she was late for about ten to fifteen minutes. You know how long that 10 to 15 minutes seemed? It was like an eternity. I was so anxious, so excited to see her walk into the door, that for all intents and purposes, she was already there, in my head, in my mind, even before she actually showed up.

Or have you ever lost something really important to you? When we sometimes misplace things, and we go all over our place, turning it upside down just to find what we’ve misplaced; the thing we’re looking for so occupies and consumes our thoughts that it seems more present when we’ve actually found the misplaced object.

It’s said that the excitement and anxiety you feel while waiting makes the person or object you’re waiting for or looking for just as present, if not more present to your mind than when he or she, or it, has actually arrived. Those of you who have waited for loved ones at the airport will recognize and understand what I’m talking about.

The serious and involved anticipation of something or someone is sometimes so strong, so powerful, and so compelling, it’s as if the person’s already around. This experience of eager and involved anticipation—when what we’re so excited about is so much already present to us—is the way to understand Jesus’ proclamation in the beatitudes that the Kingdom of God to be realized in the future, is already here in our midst.

We can experience heaven here on earth. How? By seeing things, not in the way the world sees them, but in the way Jesus sees them.

Whereas the world boasts of its wealth, Jesus speaks of simplicity and poverty of spirit. Whereas the world admires oppressive might, Jesus speaks of gentleness.
Whereas the world puts power and authority on a pedestal, Jesus speaks of weakness.
Whereas the world cries at the top of its lungs for revenge, Jesus speaks of mercy.
Whereas the world settles disputes through wrangling and war, Jesus speaks of brotherhood and peace.

Those who really eagerly await the fulfillment of the promise of Christ, those who sincerely wait for the coming of his Kingdom, those who truly are “blest”, know in their hearts, that the Kingdom is already present, here and now. Right here in our midst. We can experience heaven here on earth. There is nothing in the Beatitudes that mirrors the world’s idea of power, of authority, of grace, of blessing, of success, of victory. But it is how our Lord sees it. And follow him we must. For indeed, blest are we if we see things not with the eyes of the world, but with the eyes of our Lord.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Wonder, openness, and boundless enthusiasm for the great adventure that is life (Reflections on the feast of an intellectual giant, Thomas Aquinas)

At that time the disciples approached Jesus and said, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" He called a child over, placed it in their midst, and said, "Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me. (Matthew 18:1-6)

On this Feast of Thomas Aquinas, I’d like to share with you five truly remarkable things about the thought of this giant of our intellectual and faith tradition:

1. His openness to Truth, wherever this is found.

When he began using the thought of the ancient Greeks, especially Aristotle, many were not only skeptical of his enterprise, but were downright antagonistic, believing that something as “impure” and “profane” as these ancient philosophers should never be given a place at the table of Christianity. But Thomas did. And history and a once-incredulous church eventually judged him right. Unlike other thought-systems that insist on an irreconcilable difference, and a dichotomy and separation between faith and ordinary life, between the sacred and the secular, between the church and the world, Thomas shows us a way that sees the transcendent-in-the-immanent, God-in-our-midst, a world that as St. Paul says, “lives, and moves, and has its being” in God.

2. The ‘balance’ and ‘moderation’ of his thought.

Thomas steered clear of extremes, in whatever shape or form. In this his thought mirrors the best of Catholicism which, at its finest, abhors anything that destroys the delicate balance and symmetry of faith and life. Thomas’ thought always sought the “middle ground”, the “judicious mean” between extremes, whether this has to do with our understanding of ourselves, of the world in which we live, or God himself. Anyone who truly understands and appreciates the thought of Thomas cannot possibly become an extremist or fanatic, not in things that have to do with life, or faith, or the church. It wasn’t only Truth that for Thomas, stood squarely “in the middle”, rather it was Christ himself that was to be found there in media res, living, present, always at work.

3. The immensity of his faith and trust in the God whom he loved.

By faith, I do not mean simply, faith as profession, but faith as trust and confidence in the guidance of the God whom he sought to know and love throughout his life. Nothing could shake Thomas’ confidence in the goodness of this God; and this allowed him to sustain and nourish his intellectual curiosity. Thomas is a giant; most of us, out of fear of the unknown, would rather shrink into the safety of our shells and cocoons instead of “going out in the deep”, full of faith and trust in a God who has promised to be with us no matter what. Thomas’ was a faith that saw no boundaries to the presence and activity of God in his creation which, despite its faults, flaws, and failings, remained at its very heart, good. This is especially shown in Thomas’ love for the Eucharist which, in Catholicism, is the highest expression of the goodness of God’s creation: ordinary bread and wine, the work of human hands, yet able to become the very body and blood of his Son. To see the world as capable of being a “sacramental” presence becomes possible only when one trusts that nothing is beyond God’s reach.

4. The all-embracing character of his thought, the catholicity of his spirit.

Thomas represents the best of who and what we stand for as Catholics. To be catholic is to be κατα ολον (kata-holon), to live “according to the whole”. And yet the breadth, scope, and vastness of Thomas’ philosophical and theological enterprise is but one embodiment of this all-embracing character. Thomas’ spirit was like an empty vessel, ready and waiting to be filled with anything and everything that God placed in it. The antithesis of this can only be fear which can cause one to close himself up to the tremendous possibilities all around him. Thomas looked into all things, considered all things, grappled with all things. The soul after all, as he said is “quodammodo omnia”, a dynamic openness and capacity to receive all things. If we are in fact, the creations of a God who is Transcendence himself, then the seed, the spark of the transcendent is in us. We are like vessels that God can fill with anything and everything, because that is what he has made us to be. It was Augustine who once said: “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you”. Yet this openness was not an openness for its own sake. It had an orientation, a direction, a purpose and a goal: to seek the Truth (about oneself, one’s world, and God) by following it wherever it leads.

5. The greatness of his faith that yet remained simple, like that of a child.

And this perhaps is what has given the ultimate orientation and directedness to Thomas’ thirst for Truth. No matter how deep the recesses of human existence he managed to plumb, no matter how great his discoveries about human life and existence, he knew that there was something more, in some other realm which “no eye has seen, nor ear heard” that God has in store for one who remains faithful to the quest, to the very end. Ultimately, no matter where our journey and search take us, no matter where our wandering mind, heart and soul lead us, no matter how high or low our thoughts might bring us, like one with “the heart of a child”, we know where our true home is, and it isn’t here. Thomas knew that. He loved the world so much that he sought to find God in its every nook and cranny, yet this very same love enabled him to realize that it was not an end, but a marker along the way, a pointer to something that far exceeded anything that this world allowed him to imagine.

To truly understand Thomas is to understand the words of Jesus in scripture: "Unless you acquire the heart of a child, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God". At the heart of a child is wonder, amazement, and a boundless enthusiasm and anticipation for whatever God has in store for us. As we celebrate his Feast, we who are heirs to his faith, his passion, and his commitment, may Thomas’ thirst for truth, and his sense of the great adventure of human existence, be ours as well.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The 'certainty' of ‘adolescent faith’ and the 'uncertainty' of ‘mature faith’ (From Benedict Groeschel's "Spiritual Passages")

The religious belief of adolescence is based on the clarity of ideas, or “what makes sense”. Certitude or clarity in the last analysis is mostly a subjective experience. This may not be philosophically true, but it is unquestionably true psychologically. What is clear to one person is not clear to another. Since clarity is relatively subjective, it is also intrinsically tentative and its tentative quality can be observed in two maladaptive attitudes: fanaticism and chronic uncertainty. When adolescent faith is fueled by fear, it can be a very powerful experience and can precipitate very defensive and paranoid attitudes.

Religious fanaticism (which is really a very threatened paranoid experience of belief) denies the individual’s underlying uncertainty and projects his or her inner conflicts onto others. Usually the target is the devil or those one thinks to be doing his work. Fanaticism is forgivable in adolescents who are threatened by their own inner turmoil and need patient and gentle understanding. It is part of a common understanding of human nature to know that a basically healthy person may experience some paranoid ideation.

To assist the individual in such situations, however, it is necessary to enter his or her somewhat distorted world vision and try to allay his or her fears. Frequently adults who are themselves threatened attract adolescents and magnify their own fears as well as that of young people. Others who have failed to achieve a completely mature faith may join the adolescent in his or her fanaticism, forming a relationship which is doomed to dissolution if the young person continues to move toward a less threatened and more mature faith.

The greatest pitfall in moving toward mature faith, however, is not the false certitude of fanaticism, but a permanent fixation in an endless series of more sophisticated speculation. Some rather intellectually gifted people fall into the trap of repetitive experiences of tentative clarity, and interminable defense of these experiences. This is a particular problem for adults who as children or adolescents endured rejection or scorn because of their intellectual gifts. Understandably, they learn early in life to build their self-esteem on their intellectual powers. Like their competitors who become addicted to athletic achievement, they are overly involved with self-expression through games of the mind. It is not unusual to find Christians of real intelligence and sensitivity wasting years formulating subtle theories and distinctions, yet failing to make the leap of faith which is beyond such experiences.

The traits of both types of believer trapped in adolescence (the fanatic and the overly-speculative) are strangely similar. Although they may fight each other, trading names like skeptic and obscurantist, they are both capable of sincere, intense commitments to religion and spirituality. Each group, however, failing to get beyond adolescent faith, demonstrates the signs of psychological stagnation: bitterness, boredom, and escape into frenetic, unrewarding stereotypic activity.

The solution to the dilemma is the leap into mature faith. This phrase may annoy those who need most to take the leap; thus a psychological analysis of mature faith may be helpful. The faith of adolescence, as we have seen, is based on clear ideas tentatively held until better explanations are found. Mature faith, according to St. John of the Cross, is the exact opposite. Instead of being tentative it is certain because the author of faith is God. In the case of mature faith, divine grace breaks into the ordinary processes of cognition through revelation and personal enlightenment which enables the individual to believe.

One cannot stress enough that mature faith, like the final struggles with moral integration, reveals personally and unmistakably the power of a dynamism outside self, namely, grace. More importantly, mature faith is mysterious and obscure. It transcends ordinary theological speculation, which is based on clear ideas drawn from analogies that are manageable by reason. The source of these analogies used in adolescent faith and in intellectual speculation should be rooted in Revelation. Analogies make possible the task of positive theology. However, the faith of which St. John of the Cross speaks is faith beyond all analogies, and is usually called “apophatic faith”, i.e. faith based on denial of what is not true rather than on affirmation of what is true.

A single example may clarify the distinction between analogous and apophatic faith. It is revealed that God is a living, personal God. The notion we share as human beings of a human person is therefore applied to God as an analogy. It is a useful analogy which every child and adolescent can comprehend, although the young adolescent, newly capable of abstract thought, will do better than the child for whom God is an old man, the Ancient of Days. The theological student will go much further, however; and remove the anthropomorphisms, and come to the most sublime and unlimited notion of person. The theologian can examine the concept of person, and the Scripture and dogma related to the analogy, and proceed to an almost limitless refinement especially as psychology refines its definition of person.

The student or theologian then grows silent in inner prayer and experiences a mysterious relationship with and knowledge of God. The individual experience goes beyond all concepts of ‘person’. God becomes not less than a person nor more than a person, but beyond ‘person’ itself. As St. John of the Cross says:

“Faith is an obscure habit because it brings us to believe divinely revealed truths which transcend every natural light and infinitely exceed all human understanding. As a result the excessive light of faith bestowed on man is darkness for him, because a brighter light will eclipse and suppress a dimmer one. The light of faith in its abundance suppresses and overwhelms the intellect. For the intellect by its own power, comprehends only natural knowledge…Faith manifestly, is a dark night for man, but in this very way it gives him light. The more darkness it brings him, the more light it sheds. For by blinding it illumines him…”

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Loring (Reflections on the Gospel of the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Mt. 4:12-23)

"'Come after me and I will make you fishers of men'. At once they left their nets and followed him".

Loring was a simple woman, a retired grade school teacher in her late 60’s when I was introduced to her many years ago. She wasn’t wealthy or popular, and there was really nothing remarkable about her, except she used to come and visit us at the seminary, always with some poor person in tow who needed assistance. Being unable to aid them herself (given her own poverty), Loring would approach any of the resident priests on staff who was willing to find a wealthy friend or acquaintance who could lend a helping hand. She called it “networking”, introducing the poor and needy to wealthy and generous persons willing to assist.

It was quite effective. One time she visited me in the seminary in Manila with a young woman named Marina, who had no money and no medical insurance, but needed three heart valves replaced. The doctors had told her that without the operation, she wouldn’t last two months. Not knowing what to do, and being unable myself to provide everything she needed, I called up friends both in Manila and in the States and told them the situation. One of my buddies from the seminary in Louvain who at that time was already a priest in the Midwest, started calling friends, acquaintances, and just about anyone he knew who might be willing to help. Within a couple of days, we managed to raise the amount needed to save the young woman’s life.

The day of her operation, I visited Marina at the hospital. Loring was there by her side. Both were more than grateful, and with tears in their eyes, expressed how overwhelmed they were at the generosity of so many persons whom they will surely never meet. Before I left, we said a prayer, not only for Marina’s safety and health, but also for all those persons who without even knowing this woman on the other side of the globe, opened their hearts and assisted in extending her life. Loring’s simple act of “networking” people didn’t only save a young woman’s life, it became the means by which people who would never even know each other in this life, were brought together in order to aid someone in need.

The last time I saw Marina was a couple of months after her operation. She was the picture of health. Loring, I haven’t really heard from in quite a while; though I’m certain that if she’s still around, she's probably going from one place to the next, accompanying some poor person, looking for generous individuals willing to help a brother or a sister in need.

I owe Loring a great deal, not only as a person and as a Christian, but as a priest. She taught me how a simple and yet determined individual can make a difference in the world, and in the lives of others. And she taught me what it means to love the poor, concretely--in a way that actually does something to and for them, and not in a mere sentimental or detached fashion. To this day, whenever I am reminded of the amazing experience I had with her and Marina, I could not help but wonder how many lives this poor and simple woman managed to save. No one, except God perhaps, will ever really know.

There are persons who are like that. Simply knowing them changes us, influences us to be better. For some reason, their goodness rubs off on us and we become better persons because of them. They are the types of persons of whom we can say: “I believe I was made a better person because I had come to know him or her”.

That in fact is the simple message and challenge of the Gospel.
“Come after me, and I shall make you fishers of men”, Jesus says to Peter and Andrew, James, and John. The call of the first disciples was to be persons who would be witnesses to his message. They were, like Loring, simple folk. They weren’t wealthy, well-educated, powerful or influential people. They were ordinary fishermen. And yet, Jesus changed the world through them. That’s because they responded to Jesus’ call to be “fishers of men”, bearers of the Good News that God has finally come to dwell among his people and walk with them.

There really is no need to be great, or powerful, wealthy or popular in order to change the world. We can be our ordinary, simple selves and yet bear witness to the fact that we are followers of Christ. An old Christian philosopher said that the only thing we need to ask ourselves is:
“Do the people I meet, work or live with, find themselves inspired to do good and be good?” If our answer is “yes”, then that’s all there is to bearing witness to Christ.

“Let your light shine before people so that seeing your works they may give glory to your heavenly Father”, Jesus tells us in another part of the gospel. He invites us to live our lives in such a way that we get to draw the best out of people; so that people become better individuals by their relationship with us; so that the world becomes a better place simply because we were around. Today, he invites each one of us as he invited his first disciple two thousand years ago. He asks us to be his witnesses to all those we meet. He asks us to follow him, and become ourselves: “fishers of men”.

Guarding one's integrity (From Donald Cozzens' "The Changing Face of the Priesthood")

The vast majority of priests prize their loyalty to the Gospel and to the Church. They strive to be obedient to the Church and to the word of God. Their loyalty and obedience to the Church, however, are not without complexity. Some sense it is possible to sell their souls in service to the Church if their obedience is not mature and undergirded by their own integrity. Theoretically at least, priests understand that their obedience to the Church is not a blind and unthinking obedience.

Their challenge is to be true men of the church and at the same time their own person. This fidelity to Church and conscience implies a certain tension in the life of a priest. Sooner or later, every priest struggling for personal integrity feels it. Because he believes the Church enjoys the abiding presence and guidance of the Spirit, he is rightly disposed to trust the integrity of its teachings.

In the pre-conciliar years, there were relatively few tensions with the institutional, teaching Church. While he knows well the central role played by an informed and faithful conscience in the life of the Christian, sometimes his own experience of ministry places him in conflict with church teaching or discipline. The tension that follows is painful. So painful, in fact, that some priests adapt an attitude of unthinking obedience and loyalty simply to escape the discomfort of being in tension with the Church they love.

The late Bernard Häring, a theologian distinguished for his own integrity and fidelity, observes: “Religious obedience has quite an exceptional dignity. In its absolute form, we owe religious obedience to God alone. but just as God’s revelation comes to us only when mediated, so too, the truths of faith reach us only when mediated. The meaning of faith and the authenticity of religious obedience confront a crisis when religious authorities…demand all too much submission to an obscure package of doctrines”. A less than adult obedience, then, may compromise a priest’s integrity. Quite unwittingly he may become a “kept man”, expecting to be taken care of because of his supposed loyalty and obedience to the Church.

The antidote to this compromise in integrity is the courage to think. But thinking, the priest discovered in seminary or even earlier, can be dangerous. It may easily lead to uncertainty, and uncertainty in turn to anxiety. Sometimes priests try to escape the discomfort of anxiety by embracing in a non-thinking and non-reflective manner the doctrines, traditions, and customs of the Church. The relief is short-lived. At these moments most priests stand in the fire of the Spirit and sense the need for honest thought and hard study. They begin to read in the areas of theology, Scripture, and the human sciences. They begin to think and reflect upon their lived experience as human beings, Christians, and priests. Turning from study and thought blocks their ability to minister as mature persons of integrity. They may preach the Gospel, but the assembly senses that they have yet to live it.

The priest who has suffered loss of soul through the compromise of his integrity finds his spiritual life equally compromised. Spiritual exercises become sentimental distractions that serve to quiet the disturbing eruptions of his bad conscience. The guild of his bad conscience often goes unrecognized for, in his own eyes, he is a good priest, clearly obedient to the Church. Priests whose compromised integrity sustains an immature pseudo-obedience tend to ask: “What can the priesthood do for me?”, the banner cry of clericalism.

The subservient, always docile priest, not infrequently, turns out to be demanding and authoritarian. As one priest put it: “The priest is very often dominated for a long period of time so that he is led to believe that whatever authority says is the voice of God. Consequently, when he finally reaches authority, he becomes very domineering and uncompromising himself. His life has been filled with so many frustrations for so many years that he better get his way because this is his last chance”.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Lord, you have seized me (From Abbé Michel Quoist’s “Prayers”)

you have seized me,

and I could not
resist you.

I took bypaths, but you knew them.
You overtook me.
I struggled,
You won.

Here I am,
out of breath,
no fight left in me,

and I’ve said “Yes”,
almost willingly.

When I stood there,
trembling like one,
defeated before his captor,

Your look of love fell on me.

The die is cast; I can no longer forget you.
In a moment you seized me,
in a moment you conquered me.
My doubts were swept away,
my fears dispelled.
For I recognized you without seeing you.

I felt you without touching you,
I understood you without hearing you.
Marked by the fire of your love,
I can no longer forget you.

Now I know that you are there, close to me,
and I work in peace, beneath your gaze.
I no longer knew what it is to make an effort to pray,
I merely lift my eyes to you and I meet yours,
and we understand one another.

All is right,

all is calm.
And I am at peace.

At times, you steal over me irresistibly,
as the ocean covers the shore,
or suddenly you seize me,
and I am helpless,
I can only stand still.
Captivated, I hold my breath,
as the world fades away,
for you have suspended time itself.

I wish these minutes were hours,
when you leave, you leave me afire,
and overwhelmed with profound joy.
Though I have no new ideas,
I know you possess me even more completely.
For the wound you’ve given has widened even more,
making me a prisoner of your love.

Once more you have made a desert around me,
but this time it is different.
You are too great,
you eclipse all things.
What I used to cherish seems trifling,
and my desires melt like wax underneath the sun.
Nothing matters to me now,
neither my comfort,
nor even my life.
I desire only your presence.

Others may think me mad.
But it is they who have lost their minds.
For they have not known you.
But you have seized me,
and my mind and soul is at rest.
And I am at peace.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The call of transcendence

Blowing through heaven and earth, and in our hearts and the heart of every living thing, is a gigantic breath—a great Cry—which we call God.

Plant life wished to continue its motionless sleep next to stagnant waters, but the Cry leaped up within it and violently shook its roots: “Away, let go of the earth, walk!”

Had the tree been able to think and judge, it would have cried, “I don’t want to. What are you urging me to do? You are demanding the impossible!”

But the Cry, without pity, kept shaking its roots and shouting, “Away, let go of the earth, walk!”

It shouted in this way for thousands of eons; and lo! As a result of desire and struggle, life escaped the motionless tree and was liberated.

Animals appeared—worms—making themselves at home in water and mud. “We’re just fine”, they said. “We have peace and security; we’re not budging!”

But the terrible Cry hammered itself pitilessly into their loins. “Leave the mud, stand up, give birth to your betters!”

“We don’t want to! We can’t”

“You can’t, but I can. Stand up!”

And lo! After thousands of eons, man emerged, trembling on his still unsolid legs.

The human being is a centaur; his equine hoofs are planted in the ground, but his body from breast to head is worked on and tormented by the merciless Cry.

He has been fighting, again for thousands of eons, to draw himself, like a sword, out of his animalistic scabbard.

He is also fighting—this is his new struggle—to draw himself out of his human scabbard.

Man calls in despair. “Where can I go? I have reached the pinnacle, beyond is the abyss”.

And the Cry answers, “I am beyond. Stand up!”

- Nikos Kazantzakis.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Beware the danger of the 'external' (Reflections on Mark 2:23-28)

"The human heart is deceitful beyond all things". (Jeremiah 17:9)

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness."
(Mattew 23:27)

“Never mistake the peripheral for the essential; never lose sight of the substantial because you’ve gotten lost and consumed by the marginal”. These are words of advice I received from my spiritual director as a young seminarian. They might as well be words Jesus spoke to the religious leaders of his time who had forgotten the reason behind the countless rules and regulations they followed. Forgetfulness of what was truly important, because of an inordinate concern for what was inessential was one the Pharisees’ gravest faults.

The externals, of course, are not unimportant, but they’re of secondary importance. And we must learn to see beyond them; for they can distract us and draw us away from the true substance of our life, our faith, and our vocation that ought to be our true concern. Worse—because as the prophet Jeremiah says—“the human heart is deceitful beyond measure”, we can, without even being aware of it, use them to hide the areas of our lives that need the purifying fire of God’s grace instead of getting buried beneath a pile of trappings and trinkets.

I had a friend in seminary who was ordained a few years before me. He spoke six languages fluently, was very intelligent, extremely meticulous to the point of scrupulosity—especially about the liturgy, and was always decked in the trappings of clerical life. We used to tease him about loving ropes, lace, gold embroidery, and what we called ‘clerical jewelry’. He began wearing fiddle-backs and birettas long before they became fashionable again. He wasn’t a bad guy, but for some reason—we his friends always felt uncomfortable about certain things. Like something just wasn’t right.

In 2001, my friend invited me to visit him at his place. After having lost contact with us for several years since he received his doctorate, I was happy to be seeing him again. Three of us went to see him. Happiness, however, turned to bewilderment, shock, and even anguish when we met him. He had left the priesthood, had left the Church, and was living with a man he had met.

I haven’t spoken to him since. But this particular episode has always served, for me at least, as a reminder that unless we are honest and sincere, unless the externals of our lives are consistent with our internal reality, we will always be in danger of becoming like the Pharisees: lost in the peripherals having forgotten the essential—or worse, using the peripherals as a cover to hide things that are inconsistent with our commitments.

And so I leave you with the same words of advice my spiritual director gave me when I told him about my distress concerning my friend: “Never mistake the peripheral for the essential; never lose sight of the substantial because you’ve gotten lost and consumed by the marginal”.

Remember, there is one reason, and one reason alone why we are here—why you are in seminary, and why we are priests: and it is to grow in holiness, and in our knowledge and love of Christ and of our service to God’s people. Everything else is secondary.

Do not fall into the trap that the Pharisees, and religious leaders of every age and yes, of every religion bar none, sometimes find themselves falling into.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Love's creativity and the divine presence (Reflections on the healing of a paralytic, Mark 2:1-12)

There are really two miracles that take place in today’s gospel reading. The first of course is Jesus’ healing of the paralyzed man. But there’s a second 'miracle'—far less noteworthy and far more ordinary and natural perhaps, but just as important. In fact without it, the more divine, extraordinary, and supernatural miracle would probably not have taken place.

What is this second 'miracle'? It’s the miracle that can be summed up in the phrase: “the creativity of love”. It’s the miracle embodied in the love of a group of friends for a brother who was ill, and which moved them to do everything in their power, including tearing open a roof, to make sure their friend would get Jesus’ attention despite the crowd.

The atheist, Friedrich Nietzsche once said: “He who has a ‘why’ can bear with almost any ‘how’.” For a Christian, of course, the ‘why’ that powers everything he does is none other than love itself. It is what enables him or her to go the distance in living Christ’s call to be his follower, no matter how challenging and even difficult the circumstances of such following might be.

This past Christmas, I once again had the opportunity to spend a few hours with some very poor people, and the priests who tend to their needs, both spiritual and material. As I sat there watching these guys interact with the people in the area, especially the children, I couldn’t help but marvel at the strength, not only of their faith, but of their commitment and dedication to these men, women, and children, most of whom had absolutely nothing to call their own, and very little to offer them in return.

It was just a fascinating sight to behold—and as I sat there wondering what made them stick to a ministry that very few—including myself—wanted to do full-time, it dawned on me, these priests love these people; that’s just it. They really do love them. And it is that love that has allowed them to defy the difficulties and frustrations of their work, and creatively find ways not only to aid these folks, but to keep themselves happy and fulfilled as well.

It is fascinating to think that the extraordinary event—the miracle of Jesus’ healing of the paralytic in today’s gospel—was in fact facilitated by something far more ordinary, and yet no less supernatural: the love of four men for a sick friend.

Often, when we think of the miraculous, we think in terms of what is unusual, extraordinary, even supernatural, when the truth of the matter is, the miraculous is often right there in our midst, in the ordinary, the plain, the common, the simple, and the seemingly-insignificant.

Do we wish to truly find God in our lives today as seminarians, and later on as priests? Do we wish to always find joy, fulfillment, and contentment in everything we do, from the most important to the most mundane? Today’s gospel story offers us an important key. When there is genuine love for what we do, we unleash a creative power that transforms what is as simple and ordinary as the opening of a roof, into the very instrument by which Christ performs great wonders.

When we put love into our communion with one another, in the friendships that we form, in the work or ministry that we do, in the duties and responsibilities we are given, the ordinary ceases to be ordinary, and becomes instead, a revelation of the extraordinary workings of God’s grace.

Never underestimate the creative power of love. It doesn’t only open roofs, it leads to great miracles as well.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

To see all things with God's eyes (From Abbé Michel Quoist’s “Prayers”)

I would like to rise very high, Lord,
above my city,
above the world,
above time.
I would like to purify my gaze,
and borrow your eyes.

I would then see the universe,
humanity and history,
as the Father sees them.

I would see in matter's transformation
in the perpetual seething of life,
your great Body being born
of the breath of the Spirit.

I would see the beautiful,
the eternal thought of your Father's Love
taking form, step by step,
everything summed up in You,
things on earth,
and things of heaven.

And I would see that today,
like yesterday,
the most minute details are part of it,
every person has his place,
every group,
every object.

I would see a crowd of youngsters,
an infant being born,
and elderly man dying;
I would see the tiniest of things,
and the smallest throbbing of life,
Love and hate,
Sin and grace.

Startled, I will begin to understand,
that the great adventure of Love,
that started at the creation of the world,
continues to unfold before my eyes.

The divine story which,
according to your promise,
will be completed in glory,
only after the resurrection of the flesh,
when you will come before the Father saying:
All is accomplished.

I would then understand
that everything is linked together,
that all is but a single moment
of the whole of humanity
and the whole of the universe
towards the Trinity,
in you,
and by you, O Lord.

I would then understand
that nothing is simply
of this world,
neither things nor persons,
events nor circumstances.
But, on the contrary,
everything has been made sacred
in its origin in You,
and that everything
must be consecrated by man,
who has himself been made divine.

I would then understand that my life,
an imperceptible breath in this great whole,
is an indispensable treasure,
in the Father's plan.

Then, falling on my knees,
I would admire, O Lord,
the great mystery of this world,
your world,
which in spite of the innumerable snags of sin,
remains a long throb of love,
leading towards Love and Life eternal.

I would like to rise very high, Lord,
above my city,
above the world,
above time.
I would like to purify my gaze,
and borrow your eyes.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

All life would become a sign (From Abbe Michel Quoist's "Prayers")

If only we knew
how to look at life as God sees it,

we would realize that nothing
is simply in the secular world,

but that everything contributes
to the building
of the Kingdom of God.

To have faith is not only
to raise one's eyes to God

to contemplate him;
it is also to look at this world
--with Christ's eyes.

If we allow Christ to penetrate our whole being,
if we allow him to purify us,
the world would no longer be an obstacle.
It would rather be a perpetual incentive
to work for the Father in order that,
in Christ, his Kingdom may come to earth
as it is in heaven.

One must pray to be given sufficient faith
to know how to look at life.
For if we knew how to look at life
through God's eyes,
we would see it filled with innumerable tokens
of the love of the Creator
seeking the love of his creatures.

The Father has put us in this world,
not to walk through it with lowered eyes,
but to search for him through all things,
through all events, through all persons.
And realize that everything
must reveal Himself to us.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)