Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The 'sign of Jonah' and a reminder that with great privilege comes even greater responsibility (Wed, 1st Wk. of Lent, Lk. 11:29-32)

Just as once long ago Jonah had been God's sign to Nineveh, so now Jesus was God's sign to the people of his time - and they failed to recognize him. When Solomon was king, the Queen of Sheba recognized his wisdom and came to benefit from it. When Jonah preached, the men of Nineveh recognized the authentic voice of God and responded to it.
In the day of judgment these people would rise up and condemn the people of Jesus' time, because they have been given an opportunity and a privilege far beyond anything they ever had, far beyond what others have in fact been given, yet they still refused to believe. Their condemnation would be greater precisely because their privileges were so great.

The gospel today is a reminder that those of us who have been blessed and privileged in life can expect to be asked for a greater reckoning of what we have done with the blessings we have received.

Have we shared these with others or have we kept them to ourselves? Have we used our talents, our gifts, our abilities, our wealth, our power, our fame, and all the other blessings life may have bestowed upon us, to improve not only our own life, but the lives of others as well; or have we instead used them not only to keep others at bay but, worse, to exploit the fact that they have not been as fortunate as ourselves?

"Store up for yourselves treasure in heaven", Jesus reminds us again and again in the Gospel, "treasure that moths cannot eat, rust cannot corrode, and thieves cannot steal". "Treasure" comes in many forms; have we sought treasure that lasts, or have we anchored our hearts onto those that are fleeting, here today and gone tomorrow?

"The hungry mouths of the poor are the great barnhouses of heaven", says Saint Ambrose of Milan. Have we shared what we have with the Lazaruses of this world, or have we passed them by, throwing them our scraps, as we go about our lives, saving for ourselves things that none of us can take when our brief sojourn through life is over?

"Excess is theft", Saint Ambrose continues; very radical words! To selfishly keep for ourselves that which we do not need, rather than allowing God's blessings to flow to those who need them more than us, is to steal not only from the needy of this world, but from our very selves - we whose very nature is to 'go out of ourselves' in order to 'encounter the other'.

The selfish person 'steals' from himself first, from his soul, before he 'steals' from his neighbor; because in being selfish, he damages the very image of God who is a community of persons, the image and likeness whose stamp he bears in his innermost being.

Finally, to be selfish is to 'steal' from God himself who has given us these blessings, not for us to keep but to use for the betterment of His world and the glory of His name; blessings which have never belonged to us but to Him.

Have we been hoarders of God's gifts instead of being the stewards and sharers that He wants us to be?

The people of Jesus' time, failed to recognize him as God’s sign, already there in their midst. Would that we see in the least of our brothers and sisters, God’s signs for us today, and be reminded this Lent of Christ’s words:

“Whatsoever you do to the least of these my brothers and sisters, this you have done unto me”.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The almighty, all-knowing, everlasting and eternal Creator of all things, is our “Father”, yours and mine. (Tue, 1st Wk of Lent, Mt. 6:7-15)

It is one of the greatest mysteries of our faith as Christians that Jesus taught us to call God, our
“Father”. It is also what makes Christianity unique among all religions of the world, past and present. No other religion brings people into this most intimate relationship with God.

The religions of Jesus’ time regarded God as so distant and remote, so powerful and almighty that for men and women to regard him in such an intimate and close way was regarded as blasphemy. In fact it was Jesus’ calling God his “Father” that got him into serious trouble with the Jews in the first place.

Even today, no other religion on this earth teaches men and women to regard the almighty Creator of the universe in such close and intimate way. Jews never gave up their belief in God’s distance from us. Islam finds our belief in God as our Father to be odd. Hinduism does not believe in a single all-powerful and personal God. Buddhism doesn’t even believe that God is a person at all. A non-Christian once commented that to call God “Father” is like an ant calling a man his “dad”, utterly impossible, totally ridiculous, completely odd and baffling.

But that’s what Jesus taught: the eternal God is “our Father”. Certainly, there are many paths to God; and our church teaches us to show respect and reverence for other faiths.

And yet that shouldn’t prevent us from seeing the true uniqueness and greatness of the faith Jesus handed down to us. And that uniqueness we see in the prayer he teaches us today, the "Our Father" or as it is sometimes called, "The Lord's Prayer". And at its heart is the most simple and yet most profound lesson:

The almighty, all-powerful, all-knowing, everlasting and eternal Creator of all things, is our “Father”: yours and mine, and we are his children.

It’s a truly awesome thought, as it boggles the mind. But the more you think about it, the greater it makes you feel.

"The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." (Tertullian).

And they continue shedding it to this day. Away from the pomp, far removed from the spectacle, detached from the facade of grandeur so attractive to some in the Church today, men and women continue to shed their blood, securing the future for all of us.

Remembering the Catholic martyrs of the 20th and 21st centuries this Lent.

May we too one day be deemed worthy:

Enrique Angelelli, Anna Abrikosova, Severian Baranyk, Mary Bastian, Albertina Berkenbrock, Bartolome Blanco Marquez, Szilárd Bogdánffy, Eugene Bossilkov, Nykyta Budka, Konstantin Budkevich, Jan Bula, Beda Chang, Jan Cieplak, Maura Clarke, Salvatore Colombo, Mateo Correa Magallanes, James Coyle, Adílio Daronch, Alfred Delp, Pavel Djidjov, Jean Donovan, Ignacio Ellacuría, Leonid Feodorov, Chandra Fernando, William Finnemann, Francis Xavier Ford, Charles de Foucauld, August Froehlich, Fernando de la Fuente de la Fuente, Anacleto González Flores, Rutilio Grande, Alois Grimm, Lojze Grozde, Jaime Hilario, Basil Hopko Innocencio of Mary Immaculate, Andriy Ishchak, Cyrillus Jarre, John Anthony Kaiser, Dorothy Kazel, Egbert Xavier Kelly, Hryhory Khomyshyn, Erich Klausener, Maximilian Kolbe, Mykola Konrad, Josaphat Kotsylovsky, Omelyan Kovch, Hryhorij Lakota, Karl Leisner, Josef Lenzel, Bernhard Lichtenberg, Antonio Llidó, Symeon Lukach, Joche Albert Ly, Roman Lysko, Cristóbal Magallanes Jara, Ignatius Maloyan, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Tarsykiya Matskiv, Antonia Mesina, Segundo Montes, Pierina Morosini, Murdered scholars of UCA, Alfonso Navarro, Blessed Martyrs of Nowogródek, 108 Martyrs of World War II, Jerzy Popiełuszko,Pedro Poveda Castroverde, Miguel Pro, Volodymyr Pryjma, José María Robles Hurtado, Franciszek Rogaczewski, Óscar Romero, Toribio Romo González, Theodore Romzha, Stanley Rother, José Sánchez del Río, Zdenka Cecília, Achelingová, Addai Scher, Yakym Senkivskyi, Klymentiy Sheptytsky, Juan Soldevilla y Romero, Martyrs of the Spanish Civil War, 233 Spanish Martyrs, 498 Spanish Martyrs, Dorothy Stang, Edith Stein, the Martyrs of Thailand, The monks of Tibhirine, The Martyrs of Turon, Vasyl Velychkovsky, Albert Willimsky

Saturday, February 25, 2012

"And the angels came and ministered to him." (Reflections on the First Sunday of Lent, Mark 1:12-15)

I remember someone dropping by to visit and chat saying to me,
“You know father, I always thought when I got older I’d have fewer temptations. I was wrong; I seem to have even more temptations now than I ever did before”.

I also remember talking to a friend who said, “I always though that when my kids grew up, I’d have more patience. But now that they’re gone and have lives of their own, I find that I seem to have even less patience than before”.

Finally, there’s the seminary student who would on occasion to talk to me about his vocation, and say, “I was a very prayerful and devout person before I entered seminary, father. And for a year or two in fact after I entered, I remained that way. Now I seem to find it difficult to pray, and my commitment seems so much weaker. I don’t seem to fully understand what has happened”.

Do any of these statements describe us? Do we find ourselves tempted frequently? Do we find ourselves impatient with a loved one perhaps? Do we find it harder to obey God’s law or lead a life of commitment to our faith? Or maybe we’ve noticed a certain lukewarmness in living our faith. Have we lost the fire, the zeal, the enthusiasm we once had for the things we value most and hold dear?

If our answer to any of these questions is “yes”, then the gospel reading on this, the first Sunday of Lent, may just have an important message for us, tucked into its brevity. Let me illustrate it with a few brief stories.

In the early days of sailing, a boy went to sea to learn to be a sailor. One day, the sea was particularly rough and stormy, and he was told to climb to the top of the mast to act as a lookout. “Easy enough”, he thought to himself. And true enough, the first half of his climb was easy, as he kept looking upwards, fixing his eyes on the sky.

But halfway to the top, he made a terrible mistake, he looked down and saw the stormy waters. That was enough to terrify him, and he grew dizzy and almost fell as he lost his grip on the railings. An old sailor who was watching him shouted: “Look back to the sky! Don’t look down. Look back to the sky!” The boy followed the old man’s instructions and finished the climb safely.

Each time I have to direct a student who’s writing a paper, a thesis, or a dissertation, the point inevitably comes when I have to remind him of the importance of “keeping his eyes on the prize”, “staying on target”, “keeping his focus”. A lot of times students get lost in the maze of researched material that they end up with a ton of notes with little focus and direction, and very little written!

Finally, how could I ever forget this little old nun who a few years ago asked to be taught how to drive? She wasn’t interested in becoming a race car driver, she just wanted to be able to drive. “It’s on my bucket list”, she said. Well, I and a couple of students decided we’d teach sister how to drive, and we decided to use the seminary van as our “classroom”.

Sister was doing quite well at the start, but as soon as she got a little more comfortable, she began losing focus on what she was doing and instead started chatting us up. At one point, we were turning a corner and she was going a little too fast; we knew if she continued at that pace, we’d hit the wall to our right. Meanwhile, she was telling us about some filing issues she was having in the office.

“Brake, sister, brake!” yelled the student sitting next to her. “Step on the break!” Now terribly distracted, she just said, “What?! Where!? Where!?” and looked down at her feet. Well, guess what? We—she actually—crashed the van. Fortunately, no one got hurt, and since she was in charge of the seminary's vehicles, we didn't get into trouble. True to form, though, she decided after a few days had passed, that she had learned her lesson and would start over again. She did learn to drive; and she did get the importance of “focus”, especially when you seriously want to learn or be good at something.

The young sailor’s mistake, sister’s mistake, was to take their eyes, their focus, off the most important aspect of what they were doing. It sort of reminds us of that incident with Jesus walking on the water and Peter asking that he be allowed to do the same. Jesus agrees; and Peter gets out of the boat and begins walking towards Jesus. Soon, however, he takes his eyes off Jesus and notices how rough and stormy the sea was, how big the waves. And before long, he got terrified and began to sink

This is what often happens to you and me. We start off our lives well. We have our eyes fixed firmly on the goal. We are fiercely focused on the prize. But when something happens, something bad or unfortunate perhaps, or when life's many distractions get our attention, we immediately take our eyes off the important things; we look away.

Mark’s account of Jesus’ 40-day sojourn in the desert is the shortest of the three gospels. He doesn’t even talk about Jesus' three temptations – which we find in Matthew and Luke. After telling us about Jesus’ baptism in the previous section, and right before telling us about the beginning of his ministry, Mark inserts this very short account of Jesus in the desert.

Now there are three things that form the heart and core of Mark’s story: (i) Satan tempted him, (ii) wild beasts were around him, but (iii) the angels came and ministered to him.

Satan tempted him, wild beasts surrounded him, but angels ministered to him.

We all experience difficulties, challenges, and temptations in life; none of us is spared. And as the gospel today shows us, neither was Jesus. Satan tempted him, he was among wild beasts. And yet “angels ministered to him”. For one who keeps his eye on the prize, who sets his gaze on the purpose he has before him, who stays focused on God, the difficulties, challenges, temptations, and even setbacks in life all fade away – precisely because God will always send his “angels to minister to us”. The challenges will come, but they will never cause us to stumble; God will see to it that we don’t.

Recently, Pope Benedict, reflecting on the words of Saint Augustine in the Confessions: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee”, pointed out that while the human heart’s restless search finds its ultimate fulfillment and peace in God, we must not forget that God’s heart too is “restless” in its search for us, in its desire for communion with us.

The heart of the Father is itself “restless”, calling us, guiding us, ministering to us in ways we too often fail to notice or—if we do in fact notice—immediately forget. As he did with Jesus in the desert, God, our Father, will always send his angels “to minister” to us.

Today’s brief gospel passage invites us to take an honest look at ourselves, at our lives. If we don’t experience the spiritual peace and joy we once did, if our life sometimes feels like it’s not doing as well as we had hoped, if the temptations—“Satan and the wild beasts”—seem at times to overwhelm us, perhaps it’s because we've taken our eyes off the prize, perhaps we’ve taken our gaze off the things that really matter, perhaps we’ve lost our focus on Christ, perhaps we’ve forgotten that God will always be there, “sending his angels to minister to us"; we need only to ask.

Friday, February 24, 2012

“When the bridegroom is taken away, then they will fast.” (Friday after Ash Wednesday, Matt. 9:14-15)

When Jesus was asked why he and his disciples did not practice fasting, he answered with a vivid picture. A wedding is always a time of special festivity.

So Jesus compares himself to the bridegroom and his disciples to the bridegroom's closest friends. How could a company like that be sad and grim? A wedding is not a time for fasting, but for the rejoicing. But Jesus does tell us two things in the gospel.

He tells us that to be his follower is to know the real meaning of joy. There’s simply no room for a gloomy kind of Christianity for a true disciple.

Together with this assurance, however, there is also a reminder about the reality of life.
“When the bridegroom is taken away, then they will fast”, Jesus says. He was being realistic. There is sadness and pain in life, and being Christ’s follower does not guarantee that we will never experience disappointment and suffering.

What it does guarantee, however, is that nothing in life, not even pain and suffering can take away the happiness that our faith in Christ brings.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

"We must be careful never to use the demands of one area of our life in formation as an excuse for not living up to the demands and requirements of another part. It may be an explanation, but we ought never to use it as an excuse, much less a justification. One who genuinely seeks to serve Christ and his church must learn not only to do a constant juggling and balancing act, but must gradually learn to give equal care and thoughtful attention to each area of his life. This will certainly not be easy to accomplish, but neither is it impossible. Nor must it be seen as such. Our love for Christ and our commitment to his people later on as priests, if it were authentic, asks that we begin to live its demands, not at some distant point in the future, but now. What one is as a seminarian, he will be as a priest".

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Whatever we lose shall be returned to us a thousand times over (Reflections on the Thursday after Ash Wednesday, Lk. 9:22-25)

With all the talk of self-denial and giving things up this season, it is possible to sometimes lose sight of the reason behind our practices and observances of Lent.

Today’s gospel reminds us that the many forms of self-denial we undertake during Lent are not done simply for their own sake. As Jesus tells us, albeit in a somewhat roundabout way, we deny ourselves and lose our self because it is the only sure way by which we can really keep it.

"What does it profit us to gain the whole world and lose our soul in the process?”

What is implied by the question, of course, is that by losing the whole world, we gain our soul for all eternity. It is by losing the world’s hold on us that we gain much more than what this temporary and imperfect world promises. We gain everlasting life.

The surprising thing about being Christ’s disciple is that when we follow him and deny ourselves, we don’t end up losing ourselves, instead we find that self even more.

The forty days of Lent which we have just begun will end, not with the defeat and sorrow of the cross on Good Friday, but with the victory and glory of the resurrection on Easter. Whatever we lose, Christ will return to us a thousand times over.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The observances of Lent: pathways, not to diminishment, but to abundance of life in Christ (Reflections on Ash Wednesday, Mt. 6:1-6, 16-18)

Three times in today’s Gospel reading, we are reminded of the meaning of this entire season ahead of us.

Lent is a time of almsgiving, a time to remember the poor and those who have very little in life, a time to share the blessings we receive in order that we may store up for ourselves, not earthly treasure which moths eat, rust corrodes, and thieves steal, but treasure in heaven that lasts.

Christ invites us this season, to give, not so that we may have less, but so that we may have more of what truly matters. He invites us to consider that to give generously is not to diminish ourselves, but to gain for ourselves even more.

Lent is a time of prayer, a time to lift our minds and hearts to God and to be reminded of his ways, not so that we can forget our own ways but in order that we may find their fulfillment in Him; not so that we may forget the concerns of daily life and focus only on God, but so that the attention we give life may in fact become even deeper and more genuine.

Christ invites us this season to consider that raising our minds to God is not to neglect ourselves, but to discover our true selves even more.

Lent is a time of fasting, a time to deny ourselves the usual comforts and conveniences we’re used to, not so that our life will be more difficult, but so that we could appreciate life’s blessings even more.

Christ invites us this season to consider that to deny ourselves is not to reject who and what we are, but to discover, accept, and appreciate ourselves even more, in the way that God sees, accepts, and appreciates us.

Lent is usually seen as a time of renunciation, a time when we give up things, even the sanctuary of our churches are stripped bare. As we receive ashes on our forehead this day, as we enter into this season of penance and self-denial, let us keep in mind that the barrenness, the emptiness, the penance and renunciations of Lent are not ends in themselves.

They are instead, reminders and pointers along the way, leading us not to diminishment, but to the abundant life promised to those who truly enter in the spirit of this holy season.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

"A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter; he who finds one finds a certain treasure" (Reflections on the Gospel, 7th Sun. Ord Time, Mk. 2:1-12)

"Without friends," says Aristotle, "one would not choose to live, though he had available to him, all other goods". "For without friends," he continues, "wealth and prosperity would have no use, for there would not be as many opportunities for generosity; nor can wealth and prosperity be safeguarded without friends. As for poverty and other forms of misfortune, where is one to take refuge, except in friends?"

I've always thought that one of the most peculiar, as well one of the least noticed points of today's gospel reading is verse 5:

“When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, ‘My son, your sins are forgiven'."

The New Testament does record a good number of Jesus' healing-miracles. And yet the account in today's reading adds an interesting and important side-note to these healings, namely, the role that the paralyzed man's relationships and friendships played in his being once again made whole.

In fact one of the least discussed parts of the gospel is precisely the fact that it wasn't the paralytic who himself came to Jesus. Rather, it was his friends who brought him to the house where Jesus happened to be at the moment. It was they who saw that the crowd inside was too big for their sick friend whom they were carrying in his mat to be brought in through the door. It was they who then took him up the rooftop. And it was they who then proceeded to make a hole in the roof large enough to lower his mat down so he'd get there, right in front of Jesus.

It was the faith of this man's friends and their love and care for him that became the means, the instruments by which he was healed. "When Jesus saw their faith, he said to him, 'My son, your sins are forgiven'."

"Those who wish their friends well", says Aristotle, "are truly friends... and such friendships are infrequent, just as such individuals are rare".

One of the things I’ve come to realize throughout my many years in seminary is the importance and value of making and nurturing good and wholesome friendships, not just with priests and seminary students, but with some amazing laypeople as well, men and women who have not only encouraged me in my vocation and ministry, but who have served as sources of inspiration and strength.

Each time I look back and remember moments of serious challenge I’ve encountered, as a seminarian, as a priest, and as a man, one thing has always stood out as a constant; and that is the undeniable movement of God’s grace effected through the friends He has sent me along the way. I would not have made it to ordination if it weren’t for these friends.

And I doubt I would have remained a priest had it not been through the grace of God at work in and through them. There truly is a power to good friendships that we must never underestimate. For true friendship, to paraphrase Aristotle yet again, initiates men, not only to justice, but to goodness and virtue.

Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, in his book “Ten Steps to Priestly Holiness”, counts good friendships among the ten steps, putting it at number five. He says:

“In my study of priesthood, a solid 87.5 % of the 2441 priests said they had close priest friends, and 93.1 % said they had good lay friends who are an emotional support for them. A summary finding on the newly ordained, found that those who left the priesthood generally felt lonely, isolated, unappreciated, and disconnected. There is a very strong connection between solid friendships and healthy living for celibate priests”.

More than this, however, he adds that the presence of “good friendships” is strongly predictive of the quality of a priest’s relationship with God.

“The truth is unmistakable”, he says, “if we want a deeper relationship with God, we must nurture deeper relationships with others”. Great words of advice, for priest and layperson alike.

“When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, ‘My son, your sins are forgiven”.

The paralyzed man was brought to Jesus, received forgiveness, was healed and made whole, because of the care, concern, and faith of those whom he called friends. It is, for us all, both an encouragement and invitation, to develop and nourish, the same kind of bonds. For as the book of Sirach says:

“A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter; he who finds one finds a certain treasure. A faithful friend is beyond price, no sum can balance his worth. A faithful friend is a healing remedy, and he who fears God such friend shall find". (Sir 6:14-17)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

'Owning' our faith in Christ (Reflections on the Gospel, Thursday, 6th Wk. in Ord. Time, Mk. 8:27-33)

Jesus asks his disciples two very important questions in today’s gospel. Both of these questions go to the very heart of their relationship with him, and their understanding of who he is in their lives.

“Who do people say that I am?” he first asks. On the surface, he seems to be asking them what other people think about him. In essence though, the question was really directed to the disciples whom he had in fact sent earlier on to preach the message he gave them.

What he really meant to ask the disciples was therefore:
“What have others come to believe about me, on account of your witnessing to my message?”

Our relationship with Christ is always measured by how much others who come in contact with us, learn about Jesus himself. Our way of thinking, speaking, and acting always serve as a means by which others learn who Christ is. A disciples’ life is always meant to be a reflection of Christ.

But Jesus asks a second question: “Who do you say that I am?” There is no surface reading to this question. It goes right away to the heart of the disciples’ relationship with him.

While the disciples were given a task to preach the gospel, that task would only be meaningful, if they themselves knew Jesus in the most personal and profound way. Only those who know Christ well can truly bear witness to him.

It’s never enough to know what other people have said about Jesus. A person may be able to pass any examination on what has been said and thought about Jesus; he might have read every book about Christ written in every language on earth and still not be a Christian.

Christianity does not mean reciting a creed; it means knowing Christ, in the most personal and intimate way.

Today’s gospel tells us that Jesus must always be our own personal discovery, our binding of our selves to him, our personal choice. Our faith, no matter how generously and lovingly it may have been handed down to us by our family, our education, and even our church, will remain a superficially-planted reality in our lives unless we ourselves choose to make it our very own.

To each one of us, therefore, Jesus comes asking, not, "Can you tell me what others have said and written about me?" but, "Who do you say that I am?" He isn’t asking us what we know about him or how much we know about him, but who he is to us, and what he means in our personal and individual lives.

Our witnessing to Christ will only be genuine and meaningful, if we have a personal relationship with him, if we know him in a deep and personal way. What we know about Jesus, and how well we know him, eventually lead to what others know about him through us.

Monday, February 13, 2012

What if God sends us no "sign"? (A brief reflection on the Pharisees' demand for a sign, Mk. 8:11-13)

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

“Father, why am I not feeling anything?”
was a question a very thoughtful but struggling seminarian asked me awhile back. “What do I do? I feel nothing.”

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, but also in other areas of our life: in our studies, in our daily work, 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 singing God’s praises because everything’s going well. You’re able to concentrate in prayer, focus on your studies or work, your relationships are good, and life in general is the way you want it to be.

These moments are God’s gifts. They represent the 'peaks', the 'mountain's and 'high points' of our day to day lives. We must enjoy them, and be grateful for them. Yet we must also bear in mind that we cannot remain in them forever, no matter how great our desire to do so. For they, like everything else in life, eventually come to an end.

They pass, and the 'peaks' turn into 'valleys', where instead of feeling on top of the world, you suddenly feel barren, arid and dry, not only spiritually, but in the other areas of 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”.

And they tell us that at such moments, we must remember that for one who sincerely desires to know God and love Him, the absence of signs could very well be a sign. In fact the absence of signs is itself the sign.

Paradoxically, the presence of God is known through his absence. And we realize that desolation is itself 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 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 desire to follow Christ.

"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.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

"Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean." (Reflections on the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Mark 1:40-45)

In his book entitled Amadeus, Peter Shaeffer fashions an image of the composer Antonio Salieri as someone possessed of tremendous gifts, who as a youth comes to God one day and says:

"Signore, let me be a composer. I will honor you with much music all the days of my life. I will be your servant for life. All I ask in return is to be granted sufficient fame to enjoy my work".

Many years later, when despite his fame, Salieri finds himself eclipsed by the younger Mozart, he declares war with God, speaking to him in words dripping with sarcasm:

“Grazie, grazie, Signore. You know how hard I’ve worked. And all I asked for in return was for me to hear your voice in my work. And you have indeed made me hear it, yet it speaks only one name: Mozart. Grazie, Signore. From now on we are enemies”.

Few of my students who have studied Modern Philosophy with me, have ever liked the British empiricist, David Hume. They’ve often found his philosophy crass and a little too irreverent and critical, even destructive of religious belief. I do think though, that Hume’s criticisms—as well as those of other thinkers like him—can in fact be helpful, especially in terms of keeping us honest about our motives and intentions for professing belief in God or in his providence.

While Hume never denies outright the existence of God, he nonetheless argues that most of our beliefs are uncritically held and too often motivated by interests that are far from sincere—like Salieri’s. He even had a name for the kind of faith that we find in Mozart’s nemesis; he called it “transactional faith” or “transactional religiosity”. It’s the kind of faith that sees God as someone we strike deals and bargains with.

“Let me serve you, O Lord”, the prayer usually begins. But it continues: “All I ask for in return is this…” But as Hume would point out, this isn’t faith; it’s a “pious fraud”.

It’s the exact opposite of the faith displayed by the leper in today’s gospel reading. Here was a man whom the gospel describes as “full of leprosy”, who throws himself before Jesus and pleads with him, in total confidence and trust. And yet there was no trace of presumption in his words.

Instead, he leaves entirely to Jesus, the decision whether to grant his request or not. “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean”. This was no transactional faith, but one of total and absolute trust and surrender to whatever Jesus would decide.

It’s a lesson directed to every follower of Christ, but especially to those who seek to follow him more closely. Faith, trust, confidence and commitment to our vocation or calling in life must never be seen as bargaining chips, securing for us blessings, gifts, and favors from God. Genuine faith is not a “transactional” act, but an act of total and radical surrender to the will of God for us—whatever that might entail.

“Lord, if you wish it, you can make me clean”. “Lord, if you wish it, you can make me faithful to my calling. If you wish it, you can make me persevere. If you wish it, you can make me a good seminarian. If you wish, you can make me serve you one day as a priest. Yet not mine, but your will be done”.

The leper was healed, not just because he had faith that Jesus could heal him. He was healed because he left the final and ultimate decision to Jesus alone. His faith should also be our own: “Not my will, O Lord, but your will be done”.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

"It isn't right to throw the food of children to the dogs" (Making sense of Jesus' words in the Gospel, Thurs. 5th Wk. in Ord. Time, Mark 7:24-30)

Why would Jesus say such seemingly nasty words to the gentile woman who begged him to cure her daughter? However we look at it, the words seem so mean and unkind that we have to wonder if Jesus actually spoke them.

"Let the children be fed first”, he says. “For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs."

It thus would not be an irreverence on our part to ask whether or not such seemingly unkind, and therefore embarrassing, words did pass through Jesus’ lips.

Did he or did he not speak those words? Scripture scholars sometimes speak of what they call a “criterion of embarrassment” or a “criterion of dissimilarity” for evaluating whether the words or actions of Jesus as reported in the Gospels are historically accurate.

The criterion simply states that if what a particular Gospel text reports is “embarrassing”—in this case, Jesus seemingly referring to the Gentile woman and her daughter as “dogs”—then the account is most likely accurate, since the author, who is obviously a believer and follower of Jesus, would have no reason whatsoever to invent an account that would prove embarrassing to Him.

But perhaps, more important than asking whether or not Jesus did speak these words, is asking “why” he spoke them. Did he not, in yesterday’s gospel (Mark 7:14-23), say that “it is what comes out of a man’s mouth that defiles him”?

What we do know—say bible scholars—is that Mark, the author of the gospel, was most likely trying to make a very important point by telling this rather unusual story.

Certain Jews of Jesus’ time had a very negative view of those who weren’t Jews. Samaritans and Gentiles were lumped together and often regarded as “dogs”. Only Jews were acceptable to God, only Jews were clean and worthy. Other human beings were simply that—“dogs”.

By reporting this incident, no matter how embarrassing it might be, Mark wanted to acknowledge the fact that as a Jew, Jesus belonged to a race that back then often had a profoundly negative view of others.

And yet—and this is what’s more fascinating and truly important about the account, more “embarrassing” in fact than calling the woman and her daughter, “dogs”—was that Jesus went beyond, transcended, and overcame this negative view and, in Matthew’s account of the incident—praised the woman’s faith and granted her request.

The Matthean report of the event is far more dramatic than Mark’s:

“A Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not say a word in answer to her. His disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.” (Matt. 15:21-28)

This action of Jesus—of praising the woman’s faith and granting her request of healing for her daughter—is in fact, the real point of the gospel, not the seemingly harsh words he is reported to have said at first.

In yesterday’s gospel, Jesus judged all foods clean and acceptable. Today he takes that teaching one step further and says that no person can ever be regarded as unacceptable to God. We human beings may fail to see beyond what is superficial, most of the time resting content precisely with the external. But God's ways are different from ours, he sees and knows us, through and through. "Every hair on our head has been counted" (Lk. 12:7), and yet He loves us still.

We are all brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of but one Father. In Christ, we are all the same, no one is a stranger, no one is to be refused help, even if at times, we don’t like one another, and sometimes even call each other unkind names.

“In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is neither male nor female; for we are all one in Jesus Christ”. (Gal. 3:38)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

"Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks." (Reflections on Mark 7:14-23)

“Nothing that enters a man from the outside can defile him; rather it is the things that come out from within that render him unclean.”

The Jewish faith has always had a long list of things that are unclean or make a person unclean. Certain foods, actions, and things render persons unclean and unworthy. These teachings were such an important part of Jewish law that in the book of Macabbees, an entire Jewish family of mother and seven sons, chose to be martyred than defile themselves by eating food offered to idols. (II Mac. 7:1-42)

In one stroke, however, Jesus changes this all-important Jewish idea and says that nothing that comes from the outside can make a person unclean. Rather it is what comes out of an individual that can render him unclean.

And he names them in the Gospel: “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, and folly”. These alone, Jesus says, can defile a person, because they come from within, they come from the heart.

In another part of Scripture, he says, “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34) And so a Christian would do well to guard that what he or she does on the outside is consistent with who and what he is on the inside. For it is the single most important difference of Christianity from other religions that while other religions concern themselves a great deal with externals, Christianity holds that what is inside a person is what matters more.

Externals are for people to see. What lies within, however, what lies in the depths of the human heart and soul, that is for God alone to know and judge. And what we do in the secret of our hearts is much more valuable to Him than what others see us doing. Purity of heart and soul cannot but issue forth in external words and deeds that are consistent with such integrity of one’s ‘inner reality’.

And yet, there is the ‘flipside’ to this reality which we must not overlook, namely, that just as goodness can come from the heart, evil can come from it as well. If it is what’s on the inside that purifies; it is likewise the interior, i.e. what is from within, that can defile. Such is the “terrible chemistry” of a sinful heart which, as the prophet Jeremiah says, can be "deceitful above all things," and can distill poison that ruins life. “It is what comes out of a man”, as Jesus says, “that can render him unclean”.

The ancient Greek philosophers taught that “a good tongue is the clearest mark not only of a good upbringing, but of a moral life”. In fact, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus and the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius both argued that prudent and conscientious speech is one of the keystones to an authentic program of spiritual growth, counseling those who would listen against engaging in discussion about other people.

One of my favorite readings for Night Prayer has always been these words of admonition from Saint Paul: “If you are angry, let it be without sin. The sun must not go down on your wrath; Do not give the devil the chance to work on you....No foul language should come out of your mouths, speak only those things that are needed for building up”. (Eph. 4:26-27,29)

They’ve always reminded me of what my dad used to tell us when we were kids: “If you guys can’t say anything good to or about one another, better not say anything at all”. He didn’t mean, of course, that we couldn’t criticize each other when this was necessary, but even then he was quick to remind us that meanness was completely unnecessary and was in fact, counter-productive.

“In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity”, counsels Saint Augustine. In all things, charity.

Finally, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer who was murdered by the Nazis a few weeks before Germany was liberated by the Allies, used to constantly advise his students in seminary that they speak about people only when they’re around. And it didn’t matter if what were to be spoken are words of praise; his advice was still to avoid speaking of anyone—whether to praise or criticize them—whenever they weren’t around. “Wait till they’re present, then say what you must”.

Excellent words of advice for everyone, then and now.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Late have I loved you,
O beauty ever ancient,
beauty ever new.

Late have I loved you.
For though you were
always within me,

yet I sought you in what I found
outside my self,
and in that state I plunged
into created things
which you yourself have made.
You were, all this time, within me;
yet I failed to see you,
for the lovely things of the world
which have captivated me,
kept me far from you.
And yet you called, you cried out,
and you shattered my deafness;
you were radiant and resplendent,
you put flight to my blindness.
So now I hunger and thirst for you,
with a hunger and thirst
that none of the things of this earth could ever satisfy;
for you have set my heart on fire
with a longing to rest solely in you.

- Saint Augustine of Hippo

Saturday, February 4, 2012

To Become All Things for All Men: Reflections on Power and Authority in the Church (5th Sun. in Ord. Time, I Cor 9:16-19,22-23, Mk 1:29-39)

Power and authority in the church are meant for one thing alone, and that is the service of God and his people. This doesn’t in any way reduce authority or hierarchy to a mere functional reality in the church, but it does locate its reality firmly in one thing, and that is service.

What does this mean concretely? It means that power in the Christian community is meant to be two things. First, it’s meant to be for the service of God and his people, and secondly, if it is to be genuinely in line with the mind of Christ, it’s meant to be self-effacing.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus heals not only Peter’s mother-in-law, but also “those who were ill, possessed by demons, and those sick with various diseases”. He then retires to a quiet place and the following morning, gets up early in order to pray; as soon as he does though, the disciples “pursued him” to let him know that there are even more people hoping to see him and be healed. Without hesitation, and with nary a thought to his own personal need at that moment, he goes, preaching in the synagogues and healing more people.

The true follower of Christ is one who understands that to walk in his footsteps is to serve others, without hesitation, without seeking recompense, and to be, in the words of Saint Paul, “all things to all men”. And he likewise understands that such “service” is the one true definition of power and authority that Christ gave to his Church. Hence, at the Last Supper, having given his disciples his body and blood, and commanding them to do the same in remembrance of him, Jesus said to them:

“Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him”. (Jn. 13:12-16)

“Service” is the only Christian way of understanding power, there is no other. It isn’t ‘power for the sake of service’, nor is it ‘service exercised in and through power’. These are modifications and distortions of the simple and straightforward words of Jesus in the Gospel:

"You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. It shall not be so with you. Rather whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave...The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve". (Matt. 20:25-28)

There can be no ‘power interpretation’ here. Christ called his act of washing his disciples feet at the Last Supper, the act of a “servant”, and with that he forever redefined power in a new and radical fashion. Henceforth it is to be known simply as "service". And one who doesn’t get that is no different from James and John, and pretty much the rest of the disciples who, on so many occasions, simply couldn’t understand that Jesus was doing away with the language of power once and for all.

We on our part, however, sometimes tend to reduce Jesus’ action at the Last Supper to a mere ‘symbol’ we see on Holy Thursday, leading us to fail in seeing how literal it was and how ‘non-symbolic’ the demand attached to it is. Service isn’t a ‘symbolic act’ done by a leader of the Christian community in order to recall Jesus’ action two thousand years ago.

Service is instead, a ‘real’ and ‘literal’ act expected of a leader of the Christian community in order to continue Jesus’ two-thousand-year old action, making it present in every age. Service is no after-thought, no icing on the cake, no mere sugar-coating. A servant is what we are; and service is what we as followers of Jesus ought to be about.

"Service" is the only language of “power” those who wish to follow in the footsteps of Christ ought to use, for it was the only language Jesus himself employed. And self-effacement is the only acceptable response to the inevitable interpretation that the world will give to the service that we render—for the world cannot do otherwise.

It will call our service, "
power", or "influence", at times "clout" or "importance". At other times it will entice us with the thought that has entered the minds of a not a few well-meaning Christians: that it’s perfectly alright to seek power as long as we seek to use it for good as well. Perhaps the unspoken idea is that it’s better to have it than not, for by having power, one can use it for doing good. Power belongs to the language of the world; the language of Christ knows only of service. To seek to merge the two is to deceive and delude ourselves.

[This somehow reminds me of certain well-meaning, as well as misguided characters in Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings", who wished to possess the one ring of power, believing (or in the case of the more sinister ones, "pretending") that that they could wield its enormous power for good. It is no coincidence perhaps that Tolkien, a Christian, used the symbol of the most powerful of the seven rings as a reminder that when it comes to power, even the best of intentions by some of the noblest of men, can be distorted, corrupted, and led along a dark and destructive path.]

I was once talking to a fellow-priest who was so happy he was receiving an ecclesiastical title—for him an obvious rise in the 'ladder'. “This isn’t only a personal honor”, he told me when I asked why he seemed so delighted at the prospect, “this is also an opportunity for me to make use of the position and the title to further my pastoral plans and projects for the church. It’s not just for me, it’s for the people I’m serving as well. The honor isn’t for me; it’s for the people I minister to”.

Knowing he was a good man, I kept silent, inclined with all my heart to believe him and wish him well as he embarked on what I knew was going to be a dangerous and tricky endeavor. Power, after all, no matter how good one's intentions with regard to it, and no matter how good a person is, can always corrupt. On rare occasions perhaps, and with the rarest of men, it may fail to do so. But how many among us can withstand its corruptions once it becomes ours?

Thus Jesus himself said a very clear "no" to it, right from the start. The account of the temptation in the desert in Matthew 4:1-11 represents the unmasking of the temptation to use religion for the sake of utility, self-exaltation, and earthly power; and it reveals these temptations to be in direct opposition to the vocation of one called to serve.

Power, as it ought to be exercised in the Christian community, was meant by Christ to be self-effacing. Scripture is replete with instances whereby God’s messengers would do a miraculous deed only to remind people that they aren’t the source of the power that brought about these wonders. Jesus himself was wont to point to his Father whenever something wonderful was accomplished through him. And who could forget those immortal words of John the Baptist: “He must increase, and I decrease”.

A noteworthy Christian philosopher once said, “the most powerful signs efface themselves”. This is because for us Christians, there is only one who is truly the beginning, middle, and end of all our endeavors, both great and small, and that is Jesus himself. And our own value and worth are derived from the value and worth that we find in him, never simply in our selves.

We have but to remind ourselves of what Paul and Barnabas did at Lystra when those who saw them heal a cripple wanted to offer them gifts and sacrifices, thinking they were gods (Acts 14:9-18). The pair refused the adulation, telling everyone that they were no different from them, and then pointing to God as the source of their good deed. (Acts 14:15)

The ‘new understanding of power’ that Christ inaugurated is spoken in the plain and unadulterated language of self-effacing service that says simply, “I serve. All power belongs to Christ”. To speak in such way is to be constantly reminded that the desire for power in whatever shape or form is a betrayal of Christ crucified. It’s a betrayal of the Christ who was baptized by John in the Jordan. It’s a betrayal of the Christ who washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. It’s a betrayal of the Christ who refused Satan’s offer of power in the desert.

Make no mistake about it, and do not think that there can be a justification for seeking it. Calling it ‘responsibility’ doesn’t work, nor does saying that with it one can “do more” for the church or for people. And neither does piously declaring it to be a “burden one does not seek but which was merely placed on one’s shoulder” make it more acceptable to Christ.

True discipleship consists in service, minus the trappings of power, honor, prestige, and popularity. Incidentals you call them? Then we can do away with them. They don’t belong to the substance and essence of what we are and what we’re supposed to be about anyway. There’s only one kind of ‘power’ that sits well with the Christ of the Gospels, its name is “service”. It has no other.

(To my seminary students), I pray that you will strive even now—not later, but now—to rid your minds of any possible ‘qualification’, ‘modification’, or ‘personal interpretation’ of the message of Jesus who came “to serve and not to be served” (Matt. 20:28). Instead, take the plain words of Christ literally, and take it to heart. There are some instances in which we must simply allow the plain and simple voice of Scripture to speak to us, with no attempt at dissembling. And the admonition to service is clearly one of those instances.

Jesus’ rejection of the devil’s temptations in the desert is proof of it. One who seeks to follow in his footsteps must not only avoid actively seeking power and authority, he must not even think about it, especially not when he thinks of the service he is asked to render. I know this isn’t easy. But it has to be done. How many well-meaning young men, full of ideals and dreams, have thought to themselves, “When I become someone with authority, I’ll do my best to serve in as humble a manner as I can”, have turned out to become the exact opposite of their vision when they do come into power?

Let us not deceive ourselves. It is best to steer clear of power, even the thought of it. Do not even contemplate what you would do if you were given the position “without seeking it or working for it”. This is idle thinking, and idle minds are the devil’s workplaces. Just free your mind of such thoughts and when they do enter your heads, banish them as quickly as you can.

that’s all that Jesus asks us to do.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Critics (A brief reflection on the account of the beheading of John the baptist, Fri. 4th Week in Ord. Time, Mk. 6:14-29)

No one, as a rule, likes critics. People prefer to hear things about themselves that are nice and pleasant. And so critics are often shunned, or worse, disposed of. Socrates who called himself a “gadfly irritating the city of Athens” was condemned to death. Jeremiah was exiled and murdered in Egypt. Amos was driven out of Israel. John the Baptist was beheaded. And Jesus of course was condemned to death.

Critics are “bad news”. They annoy, pester, and refuse to leave us with our neat and tidy illusions about ourselves. Who indeed would prefer criticism to praise, admonition to appreciation, correction to commendation?

As a seminarian who got by quite well by “winging it”, I had a number of critics among those who formed me. One that readily comes to mind was my Latin professor, a Dutch priest named Francis who one time called me to his room after class and took me to task for thinking I could get away with sloppy Latin translations of biblical verses from the Vulgate.

A number of us in class had become so good at guessing the English translation of New Testament texts that we no longer paid careful attention to what the Latin actually said and would instead give a translation that was really no more than a loose rendering of the text as we remember hearing or reading them in English.

“You think you can survive as a priest by winging it!” Father Francis said after he had closed the door to his room. “Remember that what you are today as a seminary student, you will most likely also be as a priest. What are you going to feed your flock? Pious platitudes, rehashed ideas? Poorly prepared lectures and homilies? Don’t be lazy. You’re wasting your potential!”

Now Francis was usually a very calm and gentle guy. But that afternoon, he made sure that I knew he was not at all pleased at what I had been doing, especially since he felt I was giving a bad example to my classmates. I felt very uncomfortable and extremely embarrassed; I just didn’t like being scolded. I knew I made a mistake, and yet deep inside I still thought to myself, “The guy’s just being mean”.

Little did I know back then, of course, that he saw something that would be useful one day, not just for me, but for those I was going to teach and minister to. But it was only from hindsight that I realized that he, like most of my critics in seminary weren’t being mean; they were just looking out for me.

The story of Herod is the story of a man who had been given, not just a great critic in the person of John the Baptist, but someone who could’ve set him on the right path, who could’ve helped him become a good, perhaps even a great, king. John wasn’t Herod’s enemy, and in some strange way, Herod seemed to know that. In fact, he liked listening to John preach.

Unfortunately, John became too much to take for him and his vindictive wife. And due to his weak character, Herod agreed to have him killed. Yet another prophetic voice silenced by someone who preferred illusions to the truth.

One of the things I sometimes found tough but eventually appreciated when I was in seminary, was the ready availability of critical but sincere and concerned voices in the persons of those forming me. Sure they offered affirmation and praise; but they also corrected me, showed me where I was wrong, so I could learn and make things right.

You see, when you get ordained, those voices slowly fade away, and you’re left with having to be your own critic. And that’s very difficult to do, and yet is so important in keeping us honest.

As a priest, about the only time you’ll hear criticism is when you’ve messed up. But by then, it’s usually too late. Now, no one who really wishes to keep growing throughout his life would want that. We need those critical voices, we need them to tell us how to better ourselves, we need them to tell us the truth—not simply what we like to hear, but what we have to hear. We all need our John the Baptists.

And so, take in all the fatherly and brotherly critique, correction, and advice you can get while in seminary. Sure, some of them may not in fact be a hundred percent accurate; but pay attention to them nonetheless.

Keep an open mind, and most of all, keep an open heart. This environment gives you so many opportunities to hear these prophetic voices. Don’t dismiss them or silence them like Herod and Herodias did.

Instead, be grateful for them; realize that they are God’s tough gifts to us while we’re in formation. Learn from them, and integrate them into yourselves, so that when the day comes that these voices are no longer as readily available, they will remain there inside you, reminding you of what’s right, keeping you from what’s wrong, and guiding you along the straight and narrow path.

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