Saturday, February 26, 2011

Once a priest, always a priest

A young man had a vocation to the priesthood, so his bishop sent him to study in Rome. After being duly ordained priest and serving in the diocese, his bishop sent him to Rome again for further study. While there he used to visit a small church to say his office and to pray. At the door sat a group of beggars seeking alms, and one of them made him feel uneasy for some inexplicable reason. So he went back to him and asked, “Do I know you?” “Yes,” said the beggar, “I studied for the priesthood with you here in Rome and was ordained.”

The priest asked aghast, “Whatever happened to you?” He was told: “I encountered crisis after crisis in my life and eventually renounced the priesthood. I had my priestly faculties taken from me. I lost everything and am reduced to begging.”

The priest could not forget the beggar and prayed constantly for him. The study course he was attending was drawing to an end and the students were invited to receive individual blessings from Pope John Paul II. They were forbidden to speak to him personally, but as the priest knelt to receive the blessing, his mind was so full of the beggar that he blurted out, “Holy Father, please pray for X who sits begging outside a church in Rome. He was ordained priest, but has resigned and his priestly faculties were removed.” He hardly had time to finish as he was hustled away by indignant attendants.

A few days later the priest received an invitation and he hurried to the church and found the beggar. “Come quickly,” he said, “We are to dine with the Pope.” “Impossible,” replied the beggar, “How could I visit him in this state?”

The priest helped him to tidy up and they entered by the great gates of St. Peter’s, where they were met by Monsignor Dziwisz, the Polish secretary to the Pope. He conducted them to the dining room where His Holiness awaited them. After introductions, they sat down to a lovely meal. During dessert, the Pope signaled to his secretary who rose, and beckoning to the priest to follow him, left the room. After about 15 minutes the Pope called them in again. Nothing was said about what happened in their absence.

As they crossed St. Peter’s Square, the priest, overcome with curiosity, asked the beggar eagerly what transpired while he was out of the room.

The beggar related that when they were alone, the Holy Father turned to him and said, “Father, please hear my confession.” In great confusion and distress he replied, “I cannot do that. I am no longer a priest.” The Pope looked at him with loving compassion. Then he raised his right hand and wagging his finger he said, “ONCE A PRIEST, ALWAYS A PRIEST.” After a long pause, he continued, “As Bishop of Rome and Head of the Catholic Church, I could restore your priestly faculties to you…but you would have to ask.” The beggar, overwhelmed and close to tears, said simply, “Please, Holy Father…” Then the Pope heard his confession and restored his priesthood to him. Afterwards (John Paul) repeated his original request and he heard the Pope’s confession.

After a pause for prayers and meditation, John Paul said: “When you leave here, I want you to go to the church where you have been begging and seek out the parish priest. I am appointing you curate in that parish, with special responsibility for the beggars who seek alms at the church door.”

This article, titled “Once A Priest, Always a Priest,” was written by Kitty D’Encer in Sicut Parvuli, Winter, 2006. It is a true story.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Of friends (Sirach 5:6-17)

A kind mouth multiplies friends
and appeases enemies,
and gracious lips prompt friendly greetings.
Let your acquaintances be many,
but one in a thousand your confidant.
When you gain a friend, first test him,
and be not too ready to trust him.
For one sort is a friend when it suits him,
but he will not be with you in time of distress.
Another is a friend who becomes an enemy,
and tells of the quarrel to your shame.
Another is a friend, a boon companion,
who will not be with you when sorrow comes.
When things go well, he is your other self,
and lords it over your servants;
But if you are brought low, he turns against you
and avoids meeting you.
Keep away from your enemies;
be on your guard with your friends.
A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter;
he who finds one finds a treasure.
A faithful friend is beyond price,
no sum can balance his worth.
A faithful friend is a life-saving remedy,
such as he who fears God finds;
For he who fears God behaves accordingly,
and his friend will be like himself.

Friday, February 18, 2011

"Labor unions are the mouthpieces for the struggle for social justice, for the rights of working people" (Pope John Paul II)

“We must first of all recall a principle that has always been taught by the Church: the principle of the priority of labor over capital. This principle directly concerns the process of production: in this process labor is always a primary efficient cause, while capital, the whole collection of means of production, remains a mere instrument or instrumental cause”. (Pope John Paul II)

The two encyclicals with the most extensive treatment of labor issues are Rerum Novarum (1891) and Laborem Exercens (1981). Although separated by ninety years, they share at least one remarkable feature: both display a tendency to move back and forth rather quickly between an abstract theological reflection and practical principles of worker justice. This quick passage from eternal truths to specific measures reflects the great confidence shared by both their authors that the nitty-gritty reforms advocated by these documents are fully congruent with the will of God for the world.

Both Pope Leo XIII and Pope John Paul II hold up an ideal of worker justice that demands close attention to the concrete conditions that face workers in the actual workplace and in the labor markets that determine the availability of work and the terms of employment. While both popes respect the fact that the great diversity of conditions complicates the way broad principles of worker justice are applied from place to place, neither is shy about insisting on the importance of concrete measures, such as the institution of “living wages” and reasonable work hours, for the entire workforce.

Of all the principles regarding work staked out within Catholic social teaching, perhaps the most controversial is the Church’s abiding and enthusiastic support of labor unions. In his encyclical on labor, Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II states:

“Labor unions are mouthpieces for the struggle for social justice, for the just rights of working people in accordance with their individual professions.”

Workers’ rights to organize and enter into collective bargaining are considered an important outgrowth of other human rights, such as the right to free association and the right to participate fully in the economic and political life of society. Of course, it is well known that labor unions have come under substantial criticism on a number of grounds, sometimes with good reason For example, we often hear them association with corruption, favoritism, and the threat of disruptive and potentially violent strikes. They are also accused of driving up the cost of doing business and sacrificing the international competitiveness of domestic industries because of the allegedly excessive wage demands they make.

Clearly, there are some problematic aspects of union activity. Yet Catholic social teaching forthrightly contends that a world without labor unions would witness a much less favorable environment for achieving justice and an equitable sharing of the earth’s resources. Without the ability to combine their voices through collective bargaining power or organized labor, workers would be at the mercy of their far more powerful employers who might take advantage of their inferior position. Viewed from this perspective, labor unions are crucial elements in the overall balance of power in the economy, and Catholic social teaching consistently portrays them as playing a constructive role in the pursuit of economic justice. Indeed, it is increasingly a source of concern that in many places unions seem to under attack or on the decline.

It is, of course, not surprising that executives and supervisory personnel of large corporations have frequently opposed and resisted, sometimes with coercive and even blatantly illegal tactics, the unionization of their companies. Management has every incentive to squeeze workers out of higher pay and fringe benefits in order to lower the production costs of their enterprises. The history of labor relations reflects the often conflictual nature of employer-employee interactions, although the historical record also contains much encouraging evidence that mutual respect and constructive cooperation can develop, with or without the presence of labor unions.

One recurring problem is that union-free workplaces may devolve into exploitative environments, as the persistence of degrading sweatshop conditions in many places attests. A health union presence in a given industry may well be the best way to retain adequate checks against potential labor abuses. Those who argue that unions are unnecessary today generally present only one side of these complex issues. The assumption that benefits will eventually trickle down to all workers in a prosperous, competitive industry, even in the absence of vital labor unions, contradicts much of the evidence produced by studies in labor economics.

(From Thomas Massaro, "Living Justice: Catholic Social Teaching in Action")

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

To learn to recognize truth in the voice of the 'other'

Et ego ad te veneram ex gentibus; et intendi in aurum, quod ab Aegypto voluisti ut auferret populus tuus, quoniam tuum erat, ubicumque erat. "

And I had come to you from the Gentiles and fixed my attention on the gold which you willed your people to take from Egypt, since the gold was yours, wherever it was found".
(Augustine, Confessions, IX)

One of the characteristics of a community of wise readers of Scripture is an openness to outsiders, to those who are ‘others’. Without ears to hear the voices of those we consider ‘others’ to ourselves, we can forget that now “we know in part and we prophesy in part… now we see as in a mirror dimly” (I Cor. 13:9, 12). Our interpretations can take on pretensions of permanence.

When our communities fall prey to this greatest interpretive temptations, it is often only the voice of outsiders, of those who are ‘others’, that can set us right. If we have not taken the time to cultivate the skills, habits and dispositions that allow us to hear their voices, we will fall into a situation of interpretive arrogance. That is, we will deceive ourselves into thinking that our words are God’s words, that we are somehow oracles of the divine.

The exercise of power and coercion will characterize our communities. Conformity rather than faithfulness will be the standard to judge our lives. If nothing else, then, our awareness of our own tendencies towards interpretive self-deception should compel us to learn to listen to those who are ‘others’, to those who are outsiders, and to the one who is the ultimate 'other' and 'outsider', he who "emptied himself" and took on our form, bearing in himself everything that we are, everything he was not.

Then will we allow the grace of God to unmask our foolish pretensions, our pride, our arrogance that often masquerade as devotion. Then we will come to understand what Christ wished to teach his disciples two thousand years ago, by his words, by his deeds, by his death: men will be led to the light of truth, never by force, never by coercion, never by dissembling and deceit, but by guiding them to recognize it in the trust and confidence we ourselves place in truth's splendor, which needs no aid from any of our arrogant human constructs. For truth is truth, no matter where it is found. As Augustine says:

"And I had come to you from the Gentiles and fixed my attention on the gold which you willed your people to take from Egypt, since the gold was yours, wherever it was found".

(Adapted from Stephen Fowl and Gregory Jones, Reading in Communion).


Monday, February 14, 2011

Signs (Reflections on Mark 8:11-13)

Why were the Pharisees denied the signs they had asked for? The answer’s quite simple: Jesus denied them the signs they wanted because no matter what sign he gave them, they wouldn’t have recognized and believed it anyway. Their stubbornness, insincerity, and hardness of heart would have prevented them from seeing what ever sign Jesus provided.

But what if we were to ask a different question: Could God deny us signs, even if we were sincerely asking for them? What if no sign is given, not because of the hardness of one’s heart? What if there is no sign, simply because there isn’t any? “Why am I not feeling anything?” was a question a very thoughtful but struggling seminarian asked me a couple of months ago. “What do I do, I feel nothing? Where have all the signs gone?"

The great Christian mystics tell us that the spiritual life involves two distinct but related phases: a period of consolation, and that of desolation. God, they say, sends us both: in prayer, in our vocation, in our day to day living, in our relations with people, and yes, even in our relationship with God himself.

Think of those moments when you feel everything’s alright; when your heart feels like it wants to sing God’s praises because everything’s going well. You’re able to concentrate in prayer, focus on your work or your studies, your relationships are good, and life in general is the way you want it to be. Such moments of consolation, the mystics tell us, are God’s gifts.

But then, these moments pass, and instead of feeling on top of the world, you suddenly feel barren, arid and dry, not only spiritually, but in the other areas of your life as well. And no matter how hard you try to snap out of it, no matter how hard you pray and ask God to rid you of the dryness and restore your zest for things, no matter how hard you work, you can’t seem to get rid of the feeling of emptiness.

These are the moments of desolation that come to us all; the saints sometimes call it “the dark night”.

But they also tell us that it is at such moments that we must remember that for one who sincerely desires to know God and love Him, the absence of signs could very well be itself a sign. The absence of signs is itself the sign. At such moments, paradoxically, the presence of God is known through his very absence; and desolation, like consolation and the fervor we once felt, is also God’s gift.

It is during such moments of dryness, when we don’t seem to feel anything, when the usual consolations and highs of prayer, life and ministry suddenly seem absent that we have to recognize the invitation God is putting before us. And it’s the invitation to ask ourselves why we chose to follow Him in the first place. Was it because of the consolations and highs that we felt? Was it because of the signs God had given us? Or did we seek to follow, know, and love God because of God himself?

For it is when we experience the dryness and desolation of the spiritual life that we are able to discern the gifts from the Giver, the consolation from the Consoler, the signs from the One they signify. And as we slowly distinguish the two, we come to realize that it isn’t the gifts, or the consolations, or the signs that must ultimately matter to us, but God himself, and Him alone”.

The occasional absence of signs—the spiritual dryness we all go through every so often—is an invitation to deepen our faith and mature in our vocation to follow Christ. “Father, why am I not feeling anything?” Why are there no signs?

The answer is simple. Christ wants us to follow him, know him, be intimate with him, and slowly learn to give up looking for signs.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Faithfully tending to God's Word

“The word of God in the mouth of a priest empty of faith and love is a judgment more terrible than all versification and all poetic chatter in the mouth of a poet who is not really one. It is already a lie and judgment upon a man, if he speaks what is not in him; how much more, if he speaks of God while he himself is godless”. - Karl Rahner

The imagination of the priest has been jostled in recent years to look afresh at his responsibility as tender of the Word. The jostling began in earnest with the conciliar fathers insisting that “priests have as their primary duty the proclamation of the Gospel of God to all”, and has been sustained by Pope Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi. Seminaries, schools of theology, and continuing education programs for priests have each addressed the challenge of forming effective homilists.

Still, fundamental to the preaching of the word and transcending various approaches to homiletics training is the human formation of the preacher. Effective preachers, then, are found among those mature individuals who are counted as such because of their wisdom, spirituality, and common sense. They are persons who believe deeply and with passion.

In the case of the priest, who is commissioned to make preaching his primary ministry, the desire to tend to the word with reverence and imagination should be evident to all. While a pilgrim with other believers, his sense of himself as a man and a priest disposes the congregation to listen for a word from the Lord. It should be clear that he himself has humbly listened for such a word. In his personal tending to the word, his identity as priest comes into focus. It is in the power of this word that he finds the courage to remain faithfully a man of the Church while remaining his own person.

Capable of honest, intimate friendship, the priest-tender of the word will unselfconsciously communicate that he understands both the joy and pain of loving intimate trust. The sacrament of his own humanity will speak without words the predisposing truth that he has stood in the fire of human trial and emerged tried and true. A redeemed sinner, he will drink daily from the cup of mercy and begin anew to be a living icon of Jesus Christ.

In the process of faithfully tending to the word, the priest discovers that he is also tending to his own soul. More to the core of ministry, tending the word is the purest form of tending to the people he serves. Saved himself by this word, he swallows and dares to do what he was ordained to do, he dares to preach.

Tending the word is at the core of the priest’s spirituality. To him the word has been entrusted. A priestly spirituality, then, that is not grounded in the saving word of God and in tending to the word will lack the depth and power of the word itself.

Abraham Heschel captured the essence of the intimate relationship between word and spirit when he claimed that he preached in order to pray. Prayer, of course, must precede preaching the word of God, for preaching is alive only if it flows from the preacher’s spiritual core, one nourished and sustained by prayer and an abiding state of prayerfulness. Yet, Heschel’s insight is critical. he preacher in order to pray. If a priest’s preaching does not prompt him to pray, at least most of the time, something is amiss in his soul. Those who tend to the word through preaching find a quiet but insistent pull to solitude welling up within them after they have preached. Preaching, Heschel says, is “successful” when it manages to lead the assembly to prayer.

The homily then, that holy tending of the words that is the staff of the ministerial priesthood, becomes the ground and center of the priest’s spirituality—especially of the parish priest’s spirituality. Fidelity to this responsibility and privilege inevitably leads to prayer. In light of his calling to be a tender of the word, the priest’s decision to pray is arguably the most important decision he can make.

Without a decisive commitment to prayer, the ministry of preaching at Sunday and daily liturgies becomes an intolerable burden to the priest—and to those who hear him. Rather than tending to the word, the spiritually shallow priest subverts the word. With unusual passion, Karl Rahner insists:

The imagination of the priest has been jostled in recent years to look afresh at his responsibility as tender of the Word. The jostling began in earnest with the conciliar fathers insisting that “priests have as their primary duty the proclamation of the Gospel of God to all”, and has been sustained by Pope Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi. Seminaries, schools of theology, and continuing education programs for priests have each addressed the challenge of forming effective homilists. Still, fundamental to the preaching of the word and transcending various approaches to homiletics training is the human formation of the preacher. Effective preachers, then, are found among those mature individuals who are counted as such because of their wisdom, spirituality, and common sense. They are persons who believe deeply and with passion.

In the case of the priest, who is commissioned to make preaching his primary ministry, the desire to tend to the word with reverence and imagination should be evident to all. While a pilgrim with other believers, his sense of himself as a man and a priest disposes the congregation to listen for a word from the Lord. It should be clear that he himself has humbly listened for such a word. In his personal tending to the word, his identity as priest comes into focus. It is in the power of this word that he finds the courage to remain faithfully a man of the Church while remaining his own person.

Capable of honest, intimate friendship, the priest-tender of the word will unselfconsciously communicate that he understands both the joy and pain of loving intimate trust. The sacrament of his own humanity will speak without words the predisposing truth that he has stood in the fire of human trial and emerged tried and true. A redeemed sinner, he will drink daily from the cup of mercy and begin anew to be a living icon of Jesus Christ.

In the process of faithfully tending to the word, the priest discovers that he is also tending to his own soul. More to the core of ministry, tending the word is the purest form of tending to the people he serves. Saved himself by this word, he swallows and dares to do what he was ordained to do, he dares to preach.

Tending the word is at the core of the priest’s spirituality. To him the word has been entrusted. A priestly spirituality, then, that is not grounded in the saving word of God and in tending to the word will lack the depth and power of the word itself.

Abraham Heschel captured the essence of the intimate relationship between word and spirit when he claimed that he preached in order to pray. Prayer, of course, must precede preaching the word of God, for preaching is alive only if it flows from the preacher’s spiritual core, one nourished and sustained by prayer and an abiding state of prayerfulness. Yet, Heschel’s insight is critical. he preacher in order to pray. If a priest’s preaching does not prompt him to pray, at least most of the time, something is amiss in his soul. Those who tend to the word through preaching find a quiet but insistent pull to solitude welling up within them after they have preached. Preaching, Heschel says, is “successful” when it manages to lead the assembly to prayer.

The homily then, that holy tending of the words that is the staff of the ministerial priesthood, becomes the ground and center of the priest’s spirituality—especially of the parish priest’s spirituality. Fidelity to this responsibility and privilege inevitably leads to prayer. In light of his calling to be a tender of the word, the priest’s decision to pray is arguably the most important decision he can make.

Without a decisive commitment to prayer, the ministry of preaching at Sunday and daily liturgies becomes an intolerable burden to the priest—and to those who hear him. Rather than tending to the word, the spiritually shallow priest subverts the word. With unusual passion, Karl Rahner insists that “the word of God in the mouth of a priest empty of faith and love is a judgment more terrible than all versification and all poetic chatter in the mouth of a poet who is not really one. It is already a lie and judgment upon a man, if he speaks what is not in him; how much more, if he speaks of God while he himself is godless”.

Faithful to prayer and lectio divina, to the quiet listening for the voice of God as revealed to him in the events of the day, the tending of the word becomes the priest’s rock of salvation, the cornerstone of his spiritual life.

“The word of God in the mouth of a priest empty of faith and love is a judgment more terrible than all versification and all poetic chatter in the mouth of a poet who is not really one. It is already a lie and judgment upon a man, if he speaks what is not in him; how much more, if he speaks of God while he himself is godless”.

Faithful to prayer and lectio divina, to the quiet listening for the voice of God as revealed to him in the events of the day, the tending of the word becomes the priest’s rock of salvation, the cornerstone of his spiritual life.

- From Donald Cozzens. "The Changing Face of the Priesthood."

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Prayers of three kinds of souls (Nikos Kazantzakis)

"I am a bow in your hands, Lord; draw me lest I rot".

"Do not overdraw me, Lord; I fear shall break".

"Overdraw me, Lord; do with me as you please. Who cares if I break!"

"Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation". II Cor. 6:2 (Decisions: From the Spiritual Writings of Søren Kierkegaard)

Can there be something in life that has power over us which little by little causes us to forget all that is good? And can this ever happen to anyone who has heard the call of eternity quite clearly and strongly? If this can ever be, then one must look for a cure against it. Praise be to God that such a cure exists—namely, to quietly make a decision.

A decision joins us to the eternal. It brings what is eternal into time. A decision raises us with a shock from the slumber of monotony. A decision breaks the magic spell of custom. A decision breaks the long row of weary thoughts, as long as it is a real beginning. Decision is the awakening to the eternal.

One could say that all this is very simple. It is just a matter of moments, make a decision and all is well. Dare like a bold swimmer to plunge into the sea, and dare to believe that the weight of the swimmer will go to the goal against all opposing currents.

Yet, our approach must begin differently from this. First, we must reject evil’s web of deception. Making decisions is often dangerous, or rather, talking about them is. Before you learn to walk you have to crawl on all fours. Certainly there must be great decisions, but even in connection with them the important thing is to get underway with your own decision. But do not fly so high or walk too far that you forget that a decision is but a beginning.

How sad it is to find in a person many good intentions but few good deeds. And there are other dangers as well, dangers of sin. With all your good intentions, you must not forget your duty, neither should you forget to do it with joy. And strive to carry your burdens and responsibilities in a surrendered way. If you don’t, there is a danger of losing your decisiveness; of going through life without courage and fading eventually into death.

So what about the decision, which was after all meant so very well? A road well begun is the battle half won. The important thing is to make a beginning and get under way. There is nothing more harmful for your soul than to hold back and not to get going.

The path of an honest fighter is a difficult one. For whoever remains faithful to his decision will realize that his whole life is a struggle. Such a person does not fall into the temptation of proudly telling others of what he has done with his life. Nor will he talk about the “great decisions” he has made. He knows full well that at decisive moments you have to renew your resolve again and again, and that this alone makes good the decision, and the decision good.

In the end, the archenemy of decision is fear. Fear is constantly at work to break off the agreement decision has made with eternity. A fearful soul, after all, is the most miserable thing one can imagine. Fear settles deep in our souls like the idle mists on stagnant waters. From it arise unhealthy vapors and deceiving phantoms. The thing that fear hates most is decision; for decision always scatters the mists, at least for the moment. Fear thus hides behind the thought it likes best of all: the crutch of time.

Fear and time always find a reason for not hurrying, for saying, “Not today, but tomorrow”, whereas God in heaven and the eternal say, “Do it today. Now is the day of salvation”. The eternal refrain of decision is: “Today, today”. Yet fear holds us back, holds us up. If only fear would appear in all its baseness, one could recognize it for what it is and immediately fight it.

Fear wants to prevent the step of making a decision. To accomplish this it takes to itself a host of glorious names. In the name of caution, fear abhors any over-hastiness. It is against doing anything before the time is ripe. Besides, “is it not best to speak of a continued endeavor, which is by far the superior act, rather than of a sudden decision?” Ah, not decision, but continual striving, that is what fear proposes. Continuous endeavor; what a glorious expression! What a glorious deception! Whereas decision reminds us of the end to come, fear turns us away from our finality. In the end, failure to decide prevents one from doing what is good. It keeps him from doing that great thing to which each of us is bound by virtue of the eternal.

This much is certain, the greatest thing each person can do is to give himself to God utterly and unconditionally—weaknesses, fears, and all. Therefore, dare to decide, and dare to renew your decision every day. Your confidence will lift you up to God, again and again. For God is a spirit of power and love and self-control, and it is before God and for him and before him that every decision must be made. Dare to act therefore on the good that lies buried deep within your heart. “Now is the acceptable time. Not tomorrow; today, today!” Decide therefore, and be not ashamed of it, like someone treading on forbidden ground. If you are ashamed or anxious about your imperfections, then cast your eyes down before God, not men. Or better yet, in your very imperfection and weakness, decide and go forth!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Who holds the reins in your life? (Reflections on Mark 7:1-13)

When the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands. (For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders. And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat without purifying themselves. And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and kettles and beds.) So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?”

The hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees is usually the first thing that comes to mind when we read this particular Gospel passage. Today though, I propose we look at what’s going on from another angle, one that’s not as readily noticed yet remains deeply embedded in the problem Jesus saw in many of the religious leaders of his day.

Religious practices, if they arise from an authentic faith, are meant to be outward manifestations of what lies deep inside a believer’s heart. They are the external signs of an inner disposition we usually call “worship”. And worship is the acknowledgment that God is God, and we are his creatures. We bow before him; he doesn’t bow to us. He has control over our lives, because we have wholeheartedly given the reins of our life to him; and we hold nothing back.

It can happen, however, that for some—and by all indications many of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day had fallen into this trap—religious practices cease to be means of worshipping God, but ways of “controlling” Him. This type of idolatrous religion, found in Israel’s pagan neighbors, was so loathsome to God that the prophets constantly reminded them that the Living God wasn’t some kind of genie who needed to be appeased if they were to obtain from Him what they wanted.

Now no one could accuse the the Scribes and the Pharisees of being engaged, at least not blatantly, in this type of religiosity, and Jesus was hardly accusing them of idolatry. Still, one can't help but suspect that underneath all that piety, devotion, and rigorous attention to the minutest detail of their religion, there was something lurking that wasn't quite right, something perhaps that mirrors what the philosopher, David Hume, called "transactional religiosity" or "transactional faith".


According to Hume, this kind of religiosity, common to the devout and non-devout alike is one that essentially says "I'll do what you want, Lord; but in return I want you to do something for me". Here, we are reminded for instance of the character, Salieri in the film Mozart who as a young boy dedicated his life to God, and in return, asked only that God make him the most famous composer in all of Europe.

When many years later, this doesn’t happen, Salieri feels betrayed by God and declares war on on both God and the one he thought God favored more, the young Mozart. “Why do you bless him, when all his behavior does is bring you shame? Whereas I through my music and life, have sought nothing but to give glory to your name?”

Salieri’s sin, which might as well be that of the Scribes and Pharisees, was to see religion as a means by which one could curry, if not control divine favor. That to Jesus was the worst kind of religion of all; because it inverts the natural order of things. “Their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me.”

God is the one in control, not ourselves. And none of our religious practices, especially not the external ones should make us forget that in the end, we do them, not to curry God’s favor or dictate to Him what he should do. Rather, we do them to acknowledge God as God and humbly recognize our total dependence on Him.

True faith hands over the reins of one’s life to God, totally and completely, holding nothing back, seeking nothing in return. The prayer of the authentic believer—the prayer which we should learn to pray and grow into daily should always be the prayer of Christ, who after having done everything God had asked of him, still found himself facing death. “Not ours, Lord; not ours, but your will be done”.

Who’s holding the reins in your life?

Monday, February 7, 2011

God who is more intimate to me than my most intimate thought (From Thomas Merton's "Contemplation in a World of Action")

"Tu autem eras interior intimo meo." ("You, however are more intimate to me than my most intimate thought." - Augustine, The Confessions)

The real point of the contemplative life has always been a deepening of faith and of the personal dimension of liberty and apprehension to the point where our direct union with God is realized and “experienced”. We awaken not only to a realization of the immensity and majesty of God “out there” but also a more intimate and more wonderful perception of Him as directly and personally present in our own being. Yet this is not a pantheistic merger or confusion of our being with His. On the contrary, there is a distinct conflict in the realization that though in some sense, He is more truly ourselves than we are, yet we are not identical with Him, and though He loves us better than we can love ourselves we are opposed to Him, and in opposing Him we oppose our deepest selves.

If we are involved only in our surface existence, in externals, and in the trivial concerns of our ego, we are untrue to Him and to ourselves. To reach a true awareness of Him as well as ourselves, we have to renounce our selfish and limited self and enter into a whole new kind of existence, discovering an inner center of motivation and love which makes us see ourselves and everything else in an entirely new light. Call it faith, call it (at a more advanced stage) contemplative illumination, call it the sense of God or even mystical union: all these are different aspects and levels of the same kind of realization: the awakening to a new awareness of ourselves in Christ, created in Him, redeemed by Him, to be transformed and glorified in and with him.


In Blake’s words, the “doors of perception” are opened all life takes on a completely new meaning: the real sense of our own existence, which is normally veiled and distorted by the routine distractions of an alienated life, is now revealed in a central intuition. What was lost and dispersed in the relative meaninglessness and triviality of purposeless behavior (living like a machine, pushed around by impulsions and suggestions from others) is brought together in fully integrated conscious significance. This peculiar, brilliant focus is, according to Christian tradition, the work of Love and of the Holy Spirit. This “loving knowledge” which sees everything transfigured “in God”, coming from god and working for God’s creative and redemptive love and tending to fulfillment in the glory of God, is a contemplative knowledge, a fruit of living and realizing faith, a gift of the Spirit.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Total and absolute surrender and abandoment (Living in the freedom and peace Christ alone can give)

Now someone approached him and said, "Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?" He answered him, "Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments." He asked him, "Which ones?" And Jesus replied, " `You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother'; and `you shall love your neighbor as yourself.' " The young man said to him, "All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?" Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions. (Matthew 19:16-22)

It's hard to give things up. It’s even more difficult when what we find we are asked to give up is our sense of security and assurance about ourselves. The rich young man in the gospel reading could very well be one who was materially or financially wealthy. That is certainly something that is difficult to give up. Comfort and convenience are things that, when one gets used to them, become exceedingly hard to bid goodbye to. It isn’t just the body that finds itself wanting to be comfortable, the mind experiences the same attachment to certain things that have given it security.

The young man in the gospel was certainly a decent fellow. He obeyed the rules, followed the law, most probably to a very good degree. He certainly comes across as a devout person who was not only curious but actually eager to find something else, perhaps something greater or larger than what he’s used to. We can detect thus a desire for more in this young man. That in itself is a sign of the movement of God’s grace in a person. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, not a believer, said that the human person is an ‘insatiable desire for more’. There’s an unquenchable craving that seems embedded deep in the human heart that wants more, whether this be material or spiritual.

It’s the spark of the divine that the ancient philosophers and gnostics talked about. In truth though—to use language that is properly Christian—it is the grace of God already at work in one’s life. Our desire for something larger than ourselves, something to which we human beings want to feel part of, immersed in, is the initial workings of God’s grace. We never really lost that, despite our fallen state. It’s always there, just waiting to be awakened.

It is certainly that part of ourselves that makes us ambitious, competitive, yes, even greedy and selfish. It is that part of the human self that has built great monuments, achieved great things in science, the arts, government, literature, technology and every other aspect of life and existence. It is also that part of humanity, unfortunately, that has often been led astray. It is that part that is capable of great cruelty, of inhumanity, of destructiveness that has led to intolerable pain for many. The victims of this misguided and misdirected desire are countless, and their numbers will only grow unless human beings come to realize the true nature and orientation of this tremendous power they have in themselves.

Most human persons begin life like the young man in the gospel, having good intentions, good aspirations, good desires, not only for themselves but for others. And even if one were selfish and sought only one’s good, this still does not change the fact that the desire is there, the desire for more. It is the force that powers the universe. The mystics tapped into this power, this force. But they also knew what it was, or properly who it was. Most of us, however, do not arrive at this point. Rather, we are like the young man. We become aware—some vaguely—of this desire that is in us, but we fail to come to the full recognition of what it really is. And thus we are led astray.

While he was certainly not led astray—he was devout and religious, that’s for sure; and while he did seem to want to begin what can be seen as a ‘higher’ or more ‘advanced’ stage or level of his quest to realize the true nature of the desire he was experiencing, something stops him. He comes to Jesus asking what he needed to do to gain everlasting life. That is a sure sign that this young man had the desire to go beyond what his earthly existence, the comforts of body and mind, afforded him. Nor must we think him insincere in his questioning. This was a person who really felt the magnetism not only of the personality of Jesus, but his message as well. Something in Jesus attracted him, something resonated with a feeling he had within. Otherwise, he would not have come.

Something in Jesus whom he has heard preach, spoke to this young man’s very soul. It spoke to that innermost core of who he was, that part of him that was strong, ambitious, eager, competitive and secure. Something in Jesus spoke to this young man’s very self—that part of himself that was truly him, his very being.

And so he goes to Jesus to ask what he needs to do, not only to continue in this trajectory of selfhood, but to ask what more there could be. He is curious. What more can Jesus offer. He knew deep inside—had a very strong inkling—that there was something to this man Jesus that could give his present life of success and fulfillment the wholeness that he instinctively and intuitively felt he still needed. Not that there was something he felt he lacked. He was very successful. Being wealthy here should not be understood simply to mean material wealth. No, this was a young man who was materially and spiritually fulfilled. As far as a good earthly life was concerned, he was whole.

He said it himself, he observed the law—most likely to the full. As far as Judaism is concerned, this is a reflection of a life that is ‘good’, one that is lived not only for oneself, but for God and one’s neighbor as well. That after all, is the heart of the commandments which he tells Jesus he has fulfilled.

And so his desire for more is not something that manifests a lack in himself. There is no hint of deprivation here, neither materially nor spiritually. And his using the word ‘lack’ in his later question to Jesus must not be taken to mean that he came to Jesus with a feeling of inadequacy or want. No, he came to Jesus not from a position of weakness, but from a definite position of certainty, security and strength. This was a man who came to Jesus with a good deal of pride in himself and in his accomplishments, both externally and internally. And this isn’t a bad kind of pride. It isn’t boastfulness. It is rather, that good kind of pride that knows that one is whole and can therefore, with confidence, acknowledge that despite this feeling of wholeness and achievement, one believes or feels deep in one’s soul that one can do more.

Our achievements and our successes, especially when they become ours through acts that are good and aimed at the good, give us the confidence—we can call it trust or faith—that in fact makes us feel that we need to do something more, not because we are in want, but because we must give expression to that unquenchable and insatiable desire that is within us. To want more, to want to be more is a most human reality, perhaps the most human reality. And it is that reality that this young man brings to Jesus. It is this ‘perfect’ coming-in-touch-with-oneself that he lays at Jesus feet and says, “I have this. What more should I do?” It reminds us of the good and faithful servant who comes to his master after having done what is expected of him and says, “This is what I’ve done. Is there something more I must do?” There is no doubt about it, this was a good young man.

But he was still searching. That spark deep within needs to find expression, needs to find its freedom. And so he comes to Jesus asking for more. And Jesus obliges, in fact telling the young man, that with the goodness and wholeness he has so far achieved in life, there should be no reason for him not to take the next step, to take the leap and realize that while all he has so far achieved is good, there is an even higher goodness, an even greater achievement that is possible. The young man wanted it. That’s why he sought Jesus. This was why he had come to Jesus, to know what else there is that his heart seemed to long for. And Jesus tells him. "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

Give up the wholeness, give up what you have achieved, give up the comfort, security and assurance that you have. Give it up, give it to me. This Jesus says. Everything that you know, everything that has so far made your life secure and safe. Every idea, every thought, every strategy that has allowed you to prosper and be the whole and good person that you are, give it up. Everything that you have, everything that you are; give it up. Give it to me. Put it in my hands and take the leap. All the lights you possess, all the knowledge and wisdom you have built up, everything that life has taught you, give it up. Give it to me. Essentially, Jesus was asking this young man not just to give up his wealth—both materially and spiritually, he was asking this young man to give himself up. He was asking him to give up that very core of his being that has so far defined him as whole and as good.

The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard talked about a ‘leap of faith’ that defines a genuinely Christian existence. This is that leap of faith. It is a leap in the dark, not knowing where one will go. It’s a leap towards an unknown, not really sure if the risk will eventually prove to be worth it. That is what terrified this young man. That too is what terrifies most of us. Imagine building something up—let’s say your faith, in yourself, in God and in other people. Imagine living your whole life with the assurances and securities that your culture, society, religion, family, schooling, upbringing have provided you. And imagine that these have actually led to your becoming a good and whole human being, one who loves God, neighbor and oneself in the way that you have been taught is right. And then all of a sudden, meeting someone like Christ who doesn’t say that what you know is wrong, that what you’ve become is bad or that the entire context that has formed you is mistaken. No, you meet a man who instead praises you and makes you feel that you have so far done well, who looks you in the eye and says you are alright.

But he then tells you that there is something more, and that this can only be yours if you are willing to let go of all that you possess—essentially all that you are. Now that is terrifying. Who would want that? That is not only having to give up material wealth. People are known to survive the loss of material wealth. People are known to survive the loss of physical wealth. People survive different kinds of losses. But what Jesus asked the young man to give up was nothing less than the core of who he was. He was asking the young man to give himself up, totally, absolutely, and then to follow him. Where? That is what really bothered this young man. Because that is hard, painful, and excruciating. Not knowing is the single biggest difficulty one encounters, especially one who is strong and who is good. The young man was both. And Jesus asked him to give it up.

What he was asking of this young man was that trust that lies at the very heart of life itself. Total and absolute surrender—that was what Jesus had asked for. And as we see from the young man’s response, it isn’t for everybody. In fact it doesn’t seem to be for a lot of people really. It just seems mad. It goes way beyond the realm of what seems reasonable. That causes panic to ordinary and normal human sensibilities. It is frightening. That is why the young man felt that what Jesus was asking from him was an impossibility. It couldn’t be done, not by human means at least. It cannot be done.

This is perhaps the most beautiful idea contained in this story—the idea that grace is met by grace. That in us which desires more, that which in the human person is that insatiable and unquenchable fire, which is none other than the grace of God that nothing can destroy, is met also by grace—that which alone can satisfy, that which alone can give a reply to that seemingly unsatisfiable invitation that Jesus gives to this young man. It is also grace that allows for that leap, that allows for the calming of the terror and fear that comes with feeling in the deepest part of one’s being, that one is simply not able. It is that grace that enables to come to fulfillment, the absolute satisfaction of that seemingly insatiable thirst.

Grace at the beginning, grace at the end. That which invites us is also that which satisfies us. That which entices is also that which gives what is sought. That which awakens in us that seemingly unsatisfiable hunger and thirst is also that—and that alone—which ultimately provides for its satisfaction. God at the beginning, God at the end. The young man had gone a long way traversing the two points, and he was right to come to Christ, because he knew deep within, that he was the answer, the key, the way, the path to making the two points meet. And Christ did not disappoint him. He showed him the way, the only way. Give everything up and follow me. Why? Because he has done it. He is it—the bridge between the beginning and the end—that which awakens and that which fulfills. That was what the young man didn’t realize. And so he left, not because he couldn’t do what Jesus had asked. But because he was all too capable of doing it. He was strong, and it was a strength he simply found impossible to give up.


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