Saturday, May 28, 2011

"Only in God is my soul at rest; in him is my salvation" (Our "Inner Sanctuaries" - Reflections on the 6th Sunday of Easter, John 14:15-21)

My grandparents’ house was my sanctuary when I was a little boy. There I knew I’d be safe whenever I ran into trouble with my parents because of some silly and crazy things I did. Once I’ve made it past their front gate, I knew I was safe. No matter how big the offense, my grandparents would always make my parents promise I wouldn’t get punished - or that my punishment would at least be light. It wasn't that they let me get away with anything; but I knew that in their home, I was safe.

We’ve all had these ‘sanctuaries’. They don’t have to be places. Sometimes they’re persons, things, or even memories that somehow give us comfort and strength. When we’re with these persons or in those places, we feel safe, worry-free and at peace. When we’ve been having a bad day and then are suddenly reminded of our happy memories, we feel better. They’re like our “comfort zones”.

That was the disciples’ experience with Jesus. He was for them, their ultimate “comfort zone”. He was their “sanctuary”. When they were with him, they felt safe, strong and secure.

Everything was ‘ok’ when Jesus was around. Never mind if there were some problems. They knew he would make things right. With him around, they felt they could overcome any difficulty, even temptation and sin.

Unfortunately, Jesus had to leave and return to his Father when his mission on earth was done. That’s what was happening in today’s gospel.

The disciples were already feeling like orphans. They started to get worried, scared and anxious. What were they to do when Jesus had gone? How would they go on being strong?

That’s why Jesus promised to send them his Spirit who would remind them of his presence and love for them.

The Holy Spirit was going to make him always present in their lives. It would be as if Jesus had never left, because his Spirit would always be there to remind them of him and of the great moments they shared with each other. And that memory would always make them strong, secure and faithful in the face of the difficulties they would encounter.

It was as if Jesus were saying to them: “Don’t worry. I may be gone, but you can always take me with you. The Holy Spirit will see to that”.

An ancient mystic used to tell people to think of a place where they were most happy and at peace and to imagine themselves carrying that place inside them, wherever they go. He said they could always go into that place—their own personal ‘sanctuary’—whenever they felt weary, anxious or fearful.

“Go deep into yourself”, Saint Augustine used to say. “Do not go out, but go within; for it is there that you will find God”. It isn’t in externals, but deep within, that we find joy and peace.

This also is what Jesus is telling us to do in today’s gospel. He may not be around physically, but we can still feel his presence and his love whenever we want. We can carry him wherever we go and be with him whatever we do. He says to his disciples, and to us, in today’s Gospel:

“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him. But you know him, because he remains with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans.”

Acknowledging the presence of Christ’s Spirit in us is like having our own personal sanctuary within, where we can always be strong, secure and at peace.

That’s what the Holy Spirit does. He takes us to that place deep inside us where we can be with Christ, where the worries, cares and anxieties of the world cannot bother or touch us.

The ancient Christians had a practice which might sound rather odd in our day and age. Whenever they felt lonely, tempted to sin, upset, disturbed or angry, they would stop and say the name of “Jesus” again and again—like a ‘mantra’—until peace returned to their minds. It strengthened them and kept them focused on Christ.

Today’s gospel is an invitation for us to do the same: to remain focused on Christ, to make his very own Spirit our sanctuary dwelling deep in our hearts, and to take him wherever we go. In that place, we can always be at rest, we can always find contentment and joy, happiness and fulfillment - no matter how strong the winds and storms of life may blow outside of us.

In that inner sanctuary, kept hidden within our hearts and souls, Christ's Spirit will always keep us in his peace. In that place, we can - with the psalmist - pray:

"Only in God is my soul at rest, \
he alone is my rock and my salvation;

he is my fortress, I shall never be shaken.

In God alone is my soul at rest;

my hope is from him alone."

Both my grandparents have long been gone and their home which I called my sanctuary as a boy has also long been gone. But I still carry them with me. And the thought of them still strengthens me and gives me peace whenever I think of them.

Today Jesus invites us to carry him with us as well, to let his Spirit build his sanctuary in us, so he can always be with us, to comfort us, give us strength, and give us peace.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Apostolate of the Pen: An Essay by Jacques Maritain, philosopher, political thinker, Catholic intellectual (1882-1973)

The Christian apostolate is intended to convey to men the good tidings of the Gospel and to lead souls to faith in revealed truth. It has its proper ways and means. For a writer to make a novel or a metaphysical treatise an instrument adapted to this purpose, or to any other purpose extraneous to the proper exigencies of his work, would involve some risk for the very quality of the work.

What is to be hoped for with respect to a Catholic writer s that he may be an artist fully dedicated to the requirements of his art and the beauty of his work, or a thinker fully dedicated to the requirements of knowledge and the progress of the intellect in truth. He should be inspired in his task by something of the feeling that prompted Léon Bloy to say: “My secret for writing books which please you is to be ready to give my life for the unknown reader who will someday read them”.

Then he will have a good chance of being an apostle of the pen, but without having any desire to inscribe his name in the Who’s Who under this heading, or to subordinate the search for truth or beauty to practical success or facility in acting on the souls of his contemporaries.

“Catholic means” universal. To the extent to which he is true to the type, a Catholic writer speaks to all men. As a result, a Catholic writer should endeavor to offer his thoughts in a vocabulary apt to touch not only his fellow Catholics but every man. I do not say that he will succeed in doing so; but I say that he should try to. I do not mean that what he says should be of a nature to please everybody; I mean that the manner in which he says it should be such as to appeal either to reason or the esthetic feeling of any man who has the needed intellectual preparation.

This very effort to universalize the expression, to keep from using a too domestic Catholic vocabulary, helps a Catholic writer to be more profoundly faithful to the exacting purity of Catholic truth.

It isn’t easy to be a Catholic, and it isn’t easy to be a writer. To be a Catholic writer is thus doubly difficult. There is, on the one hand, the danger of yielding to the spell of art or human knowledge so as to fail in the requirements of supreme truth. And there is, on the other hand, the danger of using divine truth to which we and our fellow believers adhere in common to compensate for possible failures in our fidelity to the requirements of human knowledge. I do not believe there is any other means to overcome these risks than a good deal of humility and some kind of appreciation of, or yearning for, the ways of the spiritual life.

We are confronted now with energies of error—to use Saint Paul’s expression—which claim to transform man and the world for the sake of a materialistic ideal.

Our struggle against these energies of error can be victorious only if we confront them with the integrity of the intellectual and spiritual vigor embodied in our Christian heritage.

It is an urgent need of the world today that Christians firmly attached to their faith dedicate themselves to the labor of intelligence in all fields of human knowledge and creative activity, while realizing that the keys provided by a sound philosophy and theology are intended to open doors, not to close them.

We must realize, too, that spiritual experience born in charity is the most profound and fecund inspiration of creative work. Each one works in his own special field and according to the requirements of this field, but his work should be animated from within by a motion that comes from a Higher Source, which is able to reach the souls of men as no human dexterity can do.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Doors (Reflections on the Gospel of the Fourth Sunday of Easter, John 10:1-10)

“Amen, I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture… I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”

A few years ago, while still teaching at Providence College in Rhode Island, I was running a couple minutes late for my philosophy class. I was in such a rush, that I entered the classroom without looking at anybody, just fully concentrated and focused on the lecture I was giving that day. I had also just gotten out of a nasty cold so I wasn’t feeling too well either. Usually, as soon as I walk into the room, students would stop chatting so I didn’t look around when I noticed the students were silent. I figured they were just being their usual respectful selves.

I put my books and lecture notes on the table, stood behind the lectern, put my hands together, bowed my head, closed my eyes and began to pray as I always do at the beginning of class: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” Ordinarily, my students would join in praying. Not this time. “Okay, so they’re not praying with me today; no problem”, I thought to myself.

When I finished praying, though, I looked up and realized why it had been so very quiet. It wasn’t my class! These guys weren’t my students, and it wasn’t my classroom. I went into the wrong door and into the wrong room. “Oops! Sorry folks. I guess I’m fast becoming an absent-minded professor. Just tell your real professor you’ve already prayed. That’s one less thing for him to do”. We all ended up laughing as I left and found my way to the right classroom.

There are many doors and gates we enter throughout life. Some are the right ones, some are wrong ones. Some are good, some are bad. Some lead us to become better persons. Others harm us. Some doors embarrass us. Still others lead us to regret having entered them.

Doors are like the choices and decisions we make. Think of some of the choices or decisions we’ve made that have left us embarrassed, or feeling guilty and disappointed about ourselves. Some even make us regret the course we’ve taken and wish we could undo our mistakes.

And just as it’s easy to enter the wrong door when we’re not paying attention, it isn’t hard to lose our way through life as well. There are, after all, many doors and many paths that can be more interesting, more convenient and more enticing than doors that lead us to Christ.

The fact is, the world is full of things that are infinitely more pleasing and desirable than Christ. Have you noticed how He seems to have become an inconvenience, even a nuisance to many in today’s world? But that is understandable. “The road to life is narrow. The road to destruction is wide”, Scripture tells us.

In today’s reading, Jesus invites us to choose the narrow road to life and to enter the door that leads to the right choices and correct decisions. He is the door to Life. “Whoever enters through me will be saved”. He offers himself to us today as the door leading to everlasting life, and he asks us to enter into Him. He invites us to trust that he guides us, and that if we choose his path, we shall not be disappointed.

“Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are at my side. With your rod and your staff, you give me courage”.

Jesus promises to make it worth our while. He does not guarantee an easy, comfortable and convenient life, but does promise a great, fulfilling and meaningful one.

“I am the sheep gate”, he says. “Whoever enters through me will have eternal life”. If we want our lives to be the same, Jesus shows us the way. He asks us to enter into Him. It isn’t going to be easy. But we can be certain it will be the door that leads us to life.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Wisdom and Seminary Formation (Choosing the Road Less Travelled, Acts 6:8-15; John 6:22-29)

Stephen spoke with such wisdom that his adversaries couldn’t refute him; they grudgingly admired him, wondering where his wisdom was from.

Yesterday, with the final computation of grades for the exams completed, I officially ended my 34th semester of teaching; that’s 17 years of lecturing, correcting exams, and grading. I must admit, I am getting a little tired, and so being away from seminary for a while might do me a lot of good. Still, as I stared at the corrected papers last night, all-bloodied with red ink, I found myself asking a question I’ve asked even as a seminarian: “What’s the point of all this?”

Think about it, I’m quite certain that beginning last Friday afternoon, with the last exam completed, our brains, like hard drives, have slowly begun their process of being wiped clean and reformatted, ready to take a break during the summer months. In a few months, Husserl, Heidegger, Plato, Aristotle, the nouns of the second declension in Latin, the distentio animae of Augustine and the titles of Anselm’s three books—all these will be vague memories.

So, why go through all the pain and hassle of all that, if in the end, we’ll forget most of what we’ve stuffed into our brains anyway? Many years ago, frustrated with having to study modal logic, I remember asking my spiritual director: “What has any of this got to do with the priesthood?” His answer was simple: nothing and everything.

Nothing—because none of these, in themselves, will matter when we’re ordained. None of the things you’ve studied and memorized these past couple of weeks, in themselves, will have a direct bearing on your life as a priest. You will forgot most of them.

But, whether or not you diligently, patiently, and generously gave yourself to going through the pain of the last few weeks—that is going to mean everything to your formation, now as a seminarian, and your ministry later on as a priest. For it isn’t the things we do in seminary that form us; rather it is our attitude and disposition towards them, and our willingness to generously give ourselves to them that do.

The things we learn, study, and memorize—they’re nothing but raw data. Learning them involves the simple acquisition of knowledge. Call it a growth in us of ratio. What we’ve gained as we went through the process of learning, however: diligence, patience, perseverance, attention to the little things—that’s not just ratio, that’s called sapientia, “wisdom”. And it is growth in wisdom, not just knowledge and understanding, that represents the true purpose of seminary formation. Knowledge is information; wisdom is formation. The former involves a collection of facts; the latter, their meaning and significance. Wisdom is the ability to see and discern the profound interconnectedness of things, of the myriad pieces of information we’ve acquired. It is, as St. Thomas says, “the father of all virtues”.

Stephen spoke with such wisdom that his adversaries couldn’t refute him, they grudgingly admired him, wondering where his wisdom was from. The reading of course tells us that it is from the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel, Jesus tells those who have returned to listen to him that they should seek not the bread that perishes but that which lasts to eternal life.

The interesting thing about wisdom though, is that no one is born with it; nor is it something one gains from reading books, or learns by hanging around wise people, nor is it something one picks up like a skill in art or music. Wisdom, sapientia is closely linked to the verb sapere, which in Latin means “to taste”. One only becomes wise by “tasting” life, by living it to the full. One only gains wisdom by willingly tasting life’s sweetness as well as its bitterness, by willingly experiencing its joys as well as its challenges and difficulties.

There is thus no path to wisdom except through the wounds and scars of life.

This is why we must bear in mind that nothing we do in formation is ever done for its own sake: not our studies, not our spiritual life, not our apostolic work, not even the formation of our humanity. Everything we do in seminary is for the sake of something that transcends seminary formation itself. And hence it’s never right to say, “I just have to go through this and get it over with”. Because when we do so, we miss the point, which is that everything in seminary, every challenge, every hurdle, every difficulty, every effort, is meant to lead us to that which should be a priest’s greatest human treasure: wisdom. It’s the gateway to a life that is complete, authentic, and whole. Another name for it is “holiness”.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to teach you guys again. I do know that when we all part ways this Wednesday, we will never—all of us—ever sit in the same chapel in the same context again. So, let me share one last lesson—and you don’t even have to take an exam on it.

Do not run away from “tasting” the challenges, difficulties, hurdles, and even pains of seminary life, especially those things about yourselves which your formators tell you you need to seriously consider and work on.

Embrace everything you encounter in seminary, the easy and the difficult—and see all of them as gifts from God that are meant to stretch and strain you, not to break you, but to make you wise. Look at every single step in your journey as a step in the direction of wisdom, and a step towards holiness of life. (That after all, is why we’ve considered the priesthood in the first place.)

In your years in seminary and the priesthood, you will, again and again find before you, a choice between two paths: one will be the easy road, the low road, and the path many choose to travel.

The other will be the hard and difficult road, the tough and high road rarely taken; and yet is the road Jesus, Stephen, and others like them chose to take.

The first road will cost you nothing; the second road will cost you everything, including your life. But it’s the only road to wisdom, the only path to authenticity, and true holiness of life.

I pray that you may always choose the high road, the road towards wisdom, the path Jesus invites each of us to take.

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