Saturday, October 27, 2012

"Your Father knows what you need, even before you ask". (A brief reflection on Bartimaeus' request, 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Mk. 10:46-52)

If God knows all things, if he knows our needs even before we ask them—why is there a need for us to pray? Why do we have to ask him for things, if he already knows what we are going to ask for?

A story is told of Alexander the Great wanting to meet the great philosopher, Diogenes. He finally had the chance one day, as he learned Diogenes was sitting alone on the beach. Alexander, with his retinue of soldiers went to the beach and saw Diogenes sunbathing. 

They walked towards the old man and Alexander stood right in front of him. Diogenes looks up and sees the young Alexander who then says: “Great Diogenes, I have heard your renown and the great things you have taught many. I have come to pay you homage. Ask me for anything and I will grant it”. 

Without even thinking, the old philosopher says to the young man: “There is but one thing I ask of you, great king. Do move aside. I am sunbathing, and you are blocking the sun”.

What we ask for in prayer shows who and what we are as persons, what we value and cherish most, what we find meaningful and important in life.

For Bartimaeus, it was sight. “Lord, I want to see”. What is it for us? What do we pray for? Whom do we pray for? What do we ask?

What do we ask God when we pray? Do we pray for ourselves? For those connected to us? Do we pray for wealth? For health? For success? Do we pray for that thing which will give us what we are really looking for in life, like Bartimaeus?

God hears our prayers, we know that. “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened to you”, the Bible tells us. We may not get exactly what we ask for, but God does hear our prayers.

The question is, do we—hear our own prayers? Do we listen to ourselves praying? Does our prayer make us realize important things about ourselves? Does our prayer make us realize what kind of person, what kind of man or woman, father or mother, brother or sister, friend or co-worker we are?

What we pray for is a reflection of who we are: of our deepest values and longings, of what we believe to be most important in life. Sometimes, the things we ask for are daily needs, sometimes, they’re urgent needs; but they are always a reflection of who and what we are.

Bartimaeus’ prayer was answered because he came to Jesus in complete and total honesty. He knew what he wanted; he wanted to see—because he knew he was blind. He knew himself completely and presented himself to Jesus with no masks and no pretensions.

When I began this reflection I asked the question: If God knows all things, if he knows our needs even before we ask them—why is there a need for us to pray? Why do we have to ask him for things, if he already knows what we are going to ask for?

The answer is simple. God knows us, even before we ask him for anything. He knows us through and through. He knows our needs, our wants, and our desires. It is we, who often do not know ourselves. When we pray and ask God for things, it is not so much to tell him about us, but to tell us about ourselves. By letting God know what we want and what we desire—we come face to face with who and what we really are.

And because God knows us more than we know ourselves, he often answers our prayers, not in the way we want them to be answered, but in the way they should be answered. Let me share with you a poem that speaks of how God answers our prayers, and the need for us to recognize who and what we are when we pray.

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn to obey.

I asked for health, that I might do greater things.
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.

I asked for wealth, that I might be happy.
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.

I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need for God.

I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.

I got nothing that I asked for—but everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all people, most richly blessed.

Monday, October 22, 2012

A Consistent Ethic of Life: Continuing the Dialogue (By Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, The William Wade Lecture Series, St. Louis University, March 11, 1984)

I first wish to express my appreciation to St. Louis University for the invitation to deliver the 1984 Wade Lecture. "The William Wade Lecture Series" is a fitting way to celebrate Father Wade's life as a priest, a philosopher, and a teacher. His interest in the moral issues confronting today's Church and society was an inspiration to all who knew him. I hope that my participation in this series will help to keep alive his memory and his ideals.

Three months ago I gave a lecture at Fordham University honoring another Jesuit educator, Father John Gannon, and I addressed the topic of a consistent ethic of life. That lecture has generated a substantial discussion both inside and outside the Church on the linkage of life issues, issues which, I am convinced, constitute a "seamless garment." This afternoon I would like to extend the discussion by expanding upon the idea of a consistent ethic of life.

The setting of a Catholic university is one deliberately chosen for these lectures. My purpose is to foster the kind of sustained intellectual analysis and debate which the Jesuit tradition has cultivated throughout its history. The discussion must go beyond the university but it will not occur without the involvement of Catholic universities. I seek to call attention to the resources in the Catholic tradition for shaping a viable public ethic. I hope to engage others in the Church and in the wider civil society in an examination of the challenges to human life which surround us today, and the potential of a consistent ethic of life. The Fordham lecture has catalyzed a vigorous debate; I seek to enlarge it, not to end it.

I will address three topics today: (1) the case for a consistent ethic of life; (2) the distinct levels of the problem; and (3) the contribution of a consistent ethic to the Church and society generally.

 I. The Seamless Garment: The Logic of the Case

The invitation extended to me for both the Gannon Lecture at Fordham and the Wade Lecture today asked that I address some aspect of the bishops' pastoral, "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response." While I would gladly have spent each lecture on the question of war and peace, I decided that it was equally necessary to show how the pastoral is rooted in a wider moral vision. Understanding that vision can enhance the way we address specific questions like the arms race. When I set forth the argument about this wider moral vision—a consistent ethic of life—it evoked favorable comments, often from individuals and groups who had supported the peace pastoral but found themselves at odds with other positions the Catholic Church has taken on issues touching human life. At the same time, the Fordham address also generated letters from people who fear that the case for a consistent ethic will smother the Catholic opposition to abortion or will weaken our stance against the arms race.

Precisely in response to these concerns, I wish to state the essence of the case for a consistent ethic of life, specifying why it is needed and what is actually being advocated in a call for such an ethic. There are, in my view, two reasons why we need to espouse a consistent ethic of life: (1) the dimensions of the threats to life today; and (2) the value of our moral vision.

The threat to human life posed by nuclear war is so tangible that it has captured the attention of the nation. Public opinion polls rank it as one of the leading issues in the 1984 election campaign; popular movements like the "nuclear Freeze" and professional organizations of physicians and scientists have shaped the nuclear question in terms which engage citizens and experts alike.
The Church is part of the process which has raised the nuclear issue to a new standing in our public life. I submit that the Church should be a leader in the dialogue which shows that the nuclear question itself is part of the larger cultural--political--moral drama. Pope John Paul II regularly situates his examination of the nuclear issue in the framework of the broader problem of technology, politics, and ethics.

When this broader canvas is analyzed, the concern for a specific issue does not recede, but the meaning of multiple threats to life today—the full dimension of the problems of politics and technology—becomes vividly clear. The case being made here is not a condemnation of either politics or technology, but a recognition with the Pope that, on a range of key issues, "it is only through a conscious choice and through a deliberate policy that humanity can be saved." That quote from the Holy Father has unique relevance to nuclear war, but it can be used creatively to address other threats to life.

The range of application is all too evident: nuclear war threatens life on a previously unimaginable scale; abortion takes life daily on a horrendous scale; public executions are fast becoming weekly events in the most advanced technological society in history; and euthanasia is now openly discussed and even advocated. Each of these assaults on life has its own meaning and morality; they cannot be collapsed into one problem, but they must be confronted as pieces of a larger pattern.

The reason I have placed such stress on the idea of a consistent ethic of life from the beginning of my term as chairman of the Pro-Life Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops is twofold: I am persuaded by the interrelatedness of these diverse problems, and I am convinced that the Catholic moral vision has the scope, the strength and the subtlety to address this wide range of issues in an effective fashion. It is precisely the potential of our moral vision that is often not recognized even within the community of the Church. The case for a consistent ethic of life—one which stands for the protection of the right to life and the promotion of the rights which enhance life from womb to tomb—manifests the positive potential of the Catholic moral and social tradition.

It is both a complex and a demanding tradition; it joins the humanity of the unborn infant and the humanity of the hungry; it calls for positive legal action to prevent the killing of the unborn or the aged and positive societal action to provide shelter for the homeless and education for the illiterate. The potential of the moral and social vision is appreciated in a new way when the systemic vision of Catholic ethics is seen as the background for the specific positions we take on a range of issues.

In response to those who fear otherwise, I contend that the systemic vision of a consistent ethic of life will not erode our crucial public opposition to the direction of the arms race; neither will it smother our persistent and necessary public opposition to abortion. The systemic vision is rooted in the conviction that our opposition to these distinct problems has a common foundation and that both Church and society are served by making it evident.

A consistent ethic of life does not equate the problem of taking life (e.g., through abortion and in war) with the problem of promoting human dignity (through humane programs of nutrition, health care, and housing). But a consistent ethic identifies both the protection of life and its promotion as moral questions. It argues for a continuum of life which must be sustained in the face of diverse and distinct threats.

A consistent ethic does not say everyone in the Church must do all things, but it does say that as individuals and groups pursue one issue, whether it is opposing abortion or capital punishment, the way we oppose one threat should be related to support for a systemic vision of life. It is not necessary or possible for every person to engage in each issue, but it is both possible and necessary for the Church as a whole to cultivate a conscious explicit connection among the several issues. And it is very necessary for preserving a systemic vision that individuals and groups who seek to witness to life at one point of the spectrum of life not be seen as insensitive to or even opposed to other moral claims on the overall spectrum of life. Consistency does rule out contradictory moral positions about the unique value of human life. No one is called to do everything, but each of us can do something. And we can strive not to stand against each other when the protection and the promotion of life are at stake.

 II. The Seamless Garment: The Levels of the Question

A consistent ethic of life should honor the complexity of the multiple issues it must address. It is necessary to distinguish several levels of the question. Without attempting to be comprehensive, allow me to explore four distinct dimensions of a consistent ethic.

First, at the level of general moral principles, it is possible to identify a single principle with diverse applications. In the Fordham address I used the prohibition against direct attacks on innocent life. This principle is both central to the Catholic moral vision and systematically related to a range of specific moral issues. It prohibits direct attacks on unborn life in the womb, direct attacks on civilians in warfare, and the direct killing of patients in nursing homes.

Each of these topics has a constituency in society concerned with the morality of abortion, war, and care of the aged and dying. A consistent ethic of life encourages the specific concerns of each constituency, but also calls them to see the interrelatedness of their efforts. The need to defend the integrity of the moral principle in the full range of its application is a responsibility of each distinct constituency. If the principle is eroded in the public mind, all lose.

A second level of a consistent ethic stresses the distinction among cases rather than their similarities. We need different moral principles to apply to diverse cases. The classical distinction between ordinary and extraordinary means has applicability in the care of the dying but no relevance in the case of warfare. Not all moral principles have relevance across the whole range of life issues. Moreover, sometimes a systemic vision of the life issues requires a combination of moral insights to provide direction on one issue. At Fordham, I cited the classical teaching on capital punishment which gives the State the right to take life in defense of key social values. But I also pointed out how a concern for promoting a public attitude of respect for life has led the bishops of the United States to oppose the exercise of that right.

Some of the responses I have received on the Fordham address correctly say that abortion and capital punishment are not identical issues. The principle which protects innocent life distinguishes the unborn child from the convicted murderer.

Other letters stress that while nuclear war is a threat to life, abortion involves the actual taking of life, here and now. I accept both of these distinctions, of course, but I also find compelling the need to relate the cases while keeping them in distinct categories.

Abortion is taking of life in ever growing numbers in our society. Those concerned about it, I believe, will find their case enhanced by taking note of the rapidly expanding use of public execution. In a similar way, those who are particularly concerned about these executions, even if the accused has taken another life, should recognize the elementary truth that a society which can be indifferent to the innocent life of an unborn child will not be easily stirred to concern for a convicted criminal. There is, I maintain, a political and psychological linkage among the life issues—from war to welfare concerns—which we ignore at our own peril: a systemic vision of life seeks to expand the moral imagination of a society, not partition it into airtight categories.

A third level of the question before us involves how we relate a commitment to principles to our public witness of life. As I have said, no one can do everything. There are limits to both competency and energy; both point to the wisdom of setting priorities and defining distinct functions. The Church, however, must be credible across a wide range of issues; the very scope of our moral vision requires a commitment to a multiplicity of questions. In this way the teaching of the Church will sustain a variety of individual commitments.
Neither the Fordham address nor this one is intended to constrain wise and vigorous efforts to protect and promote life through specific, precise forms of action. Both addresses do seek to cultivate a dialogue within the Church and in the wider society among individuals and groups which draw on common principles (e.g., the prohibition against killing the innocent) but seem convinced that they do not share common ground. The appeal here is not for anyone to do everything, but to recognize points of interdependence which should be stressed, not denied.

A fourth level, one where dialogue is sorely needed, is the relationship between moral principles and concrete political choices. The moral questions of abortion, the arms race, the fate of social programs for the poor, and the role of human rights in foreign policy are public moral issues. The arena in which they are ultimately decided is not the academy or the Church but the political process. A consistent ethic of life seeks to present a coherent linkage among a diverse set of issues. It can and should be used to test party platforms, public policies, and political candidates. The Church legitimately fulfills a public role by articulating a framework for political choices by relating that framework to specific issues and by calling for systematic moral analysis of all areas of public policy.

This is the role our Bishops' Conference has sought to fulfill by publishing a "Statement on Political Responsibility" during each of the presidential and congressional election years in the past decade. The purpose is surely not to tell citizens how to vote, but to help shape the public debate and form personal conscience so that every citizen will vote thoughtfully and responsibly. Our "Statement on Political Responsibility" has always been, like our "Respect Life Program," a multi-issue approach to public morality. The fact that this Statement sets forth a spectrum of issues of current concern to the Church and society should not be understood as implying that all issues are qualitatively equal from a moral perspective.

As I indicated earlier, each of the life issues—while related to all the others—is distinct and calls for its own specific moral analysis. Both the Statement and the Respect Life program have direct relevance to the political order, but they are applied concretely by the choice of citizens. This is as it should be. In the political order the Church is primarily a teacher; it possesses a carefully cultivated tradition of moral analysis of personal and public issues. It makes that tradition available in a special manner for the community of the Church, but it offers it also to all who find meaning and guidance in its moral teaching.

 III. The Seamless Garment: A Pastoral and Public Contribution

The moral teaching of the Church has both pastoral and public significance. Pastorally, a consistent ethic of life is a contribution to the witness of the Church's defense of the human person. Publicly, a consistent ethic fills a void in our public policy debate today.

Pastorally, I submit that a Church standing forth on the entire range of issues which the logic of our moral vision bids us to confront will be a Church in the style of both Vatican II's Gaudium et Spes and in the style of Pope John Paul II's consistent witness to life. The pastoral life of the Church should not be guided by a simplistic criterion of relevance. But the capacity of faith to shed light on the concrete questions of personal and public life today is one way in which the value of the Gospel is assessed.

Certainly the serious, sustained interest manifested throughout American society in the bishops' letter on war and peace provides a unique pastoral opportunity for the Church. Demonstrating how the teaching on war and peace is supported by a wider concern for all of life may bring others to see for the first time what our tradition has affirmed for a very long time: the linkage among the life issues.

The public value of a consistent ethic of life is connected directly to its pastoral role. In the public arena we should always speak and act like a Church. But the unique public possibility for a consistent ethic is provided precisely by the unstructured character of the public debate on the life questions. Each of the issues I have identified today—abortion, war, hunger and human rights, euthanasia and capital punishment—is treated as a separate, self-contained topic in our public life. Each is distinct, but an ad hoc approach to each one fails to illustrate how our choices in one area can affect our decisions in other areas. There must be a public attitude of respect for all of life if public actions are to respect it in concrete cases.

The pastoral on war and peace speaks of a "new moment" in the nuclear age. The pastoral has been widely studied and applauded because it caught the spirit of the "new moment" and spoke with moral substance to the issues of the "new moment." I am convinced there is an "open moment" before us on the agenda of life issues. It is a significant opportunity for the Church to demonstrate the strength of a sustained moral vision. I submit that a clear witness to a consistent ethic of life will allow us to grasp the opportunity of this "open moment" and serve both the sacredness of every human life and the God of Life who is the origin and support of our common humanity.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

"Heroes are made, not born." So are saints. (Seeing beyond the misplaced ambition and impure motivations of the sons of Zebedee, Mk. 10:35-45)

“Heroes are made, not born”. So are saints. I couldn’t help but be reminded of that line as I thought about the sons of Zebedee, portrayed in today’s gospel reading as two overly ambitious young men who come to Jesus with a rather odd, though somehow understandable request: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you”, they say to Jesus. Asked what it was, they declare without even worrying about what the other apostles might think of them: “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right, and one at your left”.

This past week, I had to once again read hundreds of pages of midterm papers written by my students. It was a lot of work! And while at certain moments I found the exercise quite exhausting, I likewise found joy, even inspiration in the fact that their works did give me a kind of window into their lives, their struggles with their faith, as well as the ups and downs of their attempts to remain faithful to their calling.

There was one paper in particular that stood out (I obviously can’t share whose paper it is, and to respect the confidentiality of the exercise, I’ll try to be as general as possible). In it, my student said something I’ve heard from not a few young men whom I’ve taught in seminary over the years: “I’m not sure how pure or even sincere my motivations are for wanting to enter seminary and become a priest”.

My initial reaction to such thoughts—which was the same reaction my own spiritual director had to my own questioning years ago—has always been, “Do such things as pristine and totally sincere motivations for anything actually exist in this world?” We live, after all, in a far-from-ideal and far-from-perfect world, and perhaps all motives are an admixture of light and shadows. I doubt any of the twelve men who first followed Jesus were themselves totally clear concerning their motives for following him.

The request of James and John in today’s gospel reading, as well as the constant misunderstanding of the other ten about the true meaning of Jesus’ mission, is testament to that fact.

In this regard, allow me share with you the stories of two individuals I’ve always admired, and with whom I’ve in fact kept in touch to this day; one’s a doctor, the other’s a priest.

The doctor (let’s just call him “James” though that isn’t his real name as I wasn't able to get his permission to talk about him in this homily) came from a very wealthy family; his parents were both doctors, and so was his paternal grandfather and a number of his uncles and aunts.

The priest (let’s call him “John”, not his real name either) belonged to an equally affluent family who’s father, a rather stern and controlling man, was a government official who had pretty much planned and laid out what he wanted each of his five children, two boys and three girls, to be. John, the eldest was going to be an engineer.

James decided to follow in his father’s footsteps; but not because of any noble reason, but simply because—as he used to tell his friends, “I come from a family of doctors, and they do very well”. He was a very likeable and friendly guy, generous towards his friends, but a little too self-oriented, even a tad conceited; and—perhaps due to his rather sheltered upbringing—had very little understanding and time for the poor. One of his favorite lines, which I and some of our friends found rather jarring was, “They’re poor because they’re lazy.”

John, on the other hand, entered seminary and was in fact a rather decent and hard-working seminarian; though like James, he decision to discern the vocation to the priesthood—as he later shared with some of his closest friends—was partly motivated by a desire to run away from his controlling father and what he called a “suffocating environment” at home.

Given the lack of clarity—and that’s putting it rather mildly—of these two men’s motives, they could certainly have ended up being a less-than-exemplary physician and a poor excuse for a priest. But that’s not what happened. 

James today works with some of the poorest members of a community in a small rural village. After having worked in a big city hospital and making a lot of money, he decided that he wanted to do something more, “something noble and good for the unfortunate”, as he puts it. 

And John, the young man who entered seminary partly to escape his father’s control, is today a hard-working, kind, loving and generous priest who is well-loved and respected by his parishioners, “one of the best priests I know”, as a parishioner of his said to me when I once visited him. (He also managed to reconcile with his dad before he passed away.)

Both men are proof that our motives though they may in fact be initially unclear and even impure, can, with the help of God’s grace and our full cooperation with it, be rendered worthy and acceptable. And their stories are testaments to the fact that the power of God’s grace and our willingness to be guided and enlightened by it, can transform us into noble and heroic individuals - just as it did to this doctor and priest; perhaps even make saints out of us - just as it did to the sons of Zebedee.

For when we have said all that can be said about the apostles James and John (and against their seemingly inordinate ambition in today’s gospel), their account tells us one truly shining thing about them: confused as they might have been, they put their confidence and trust completely in the one whom they had chosen to follow.

Despite all seeming proofs to the contrary, these two men could still connect glory and final victory to this poor carpenter who had no power, no high education, no wealth, who had incurred the enmity and bitter opposition of the religious leaders, and who, for all intents and purposes, looked like he was headed for a most painful and ignominious end.

There is amazing confidence and loyalty in these sons of Zebedee. Their motives may not have always been clear and pure; they may have been misguided, confused and ambitious, but their hearts were surely in the right place. They had an indestructible faith that in the end Jesus would triumph, and the fact that they spent the remainder of their lives preaching His message is proof positive that the initially impure motivation notwithstanding, their hearts were in the right place. 

The question thus is not whether our initial motives are pure or not, the question is whether we are willing to allow the fire of God's grace to gradually purify them.

The story of James and John is a reminder to us as well. While we may sometimes fail to understand and accept the challenging and difficult things about our faith, and while our motivations may not always be clear and pure, we would do well to cast our lot with Jesus and remain faithful to him as the sons of Zebedee did, for with God’s grace and with our willingness to put in as much effort into cooperating with it, everything is possible, including transforming us, ordinary men and women into heroes, even saints.

Friday, October 19, 2012

A Brief Meditation before the Blessed Sacrament on a Friday afternoon (Of Runners, Watchers, and Risk-takers: A Continuing Reflection on Isaac Jogues, Jean de Brebeuf and their Companion-Martyrs)

“Whoever seeks to save his life shall lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake shall save it”.

Continuing with our reflections on Saints Isaac Jogues, Jean de Brebeuf, and their companion martyrs, from Mass this morning, I wish to share with you a story entitled Haydn and the Oyster, from Robert Crisp’s take on the philosopher John Stuart Mill’s theory of “Utilitarianism”:

"You are a soul in heaven waiting to be allocated a life on Earth. It is late Friday afternoon, and you watch anxiously as the supply of available lives dwindles. When your turn comes, the angel in charge offers you a choice between two lives, that of the composer Joseph Haydn and that of an oyster. Besides composing some wonderful music and influencing the evolution of the symphony, Haydn will meet with success and honor in his own lifetime, be cheerful and popular, travel and gain much enjoyment from field sports. The oyster's life is far less exciting. Though this is rather a sophisticated oyster, its life will consist only of mild  pleasure, rather like that experienced by humans when floating very drunk in a warm bath. When you request the life of Haydn, the angel sighs, ‘I'll never get rid of this oyster life. It's been hanging around for ages. Look, I'll offer you a special deal. Haydn will die at a young age. But I'll make the oyster life as long as you like...’"

Which would we choose, a short life lived to the full, “on knife’s edge” as some would put it, a life lived in total commitment and absolute surrender to a God who does not promise comfort, ease, or easy glory; but whose promise consists only in his never-ending presence to us. Or shall we choose the life of an oyster, a long—perhaps an extremely long life—of boredom, with no risks, no commitments, no pain, no danger, no sacrifice, but also no hope of true and final victory?

There are three types of persons in this world: those who run, those who watch, and the risk-takers who willingly commit.

Runners are those who, fearing they’ll get hurt, do their best to flee anything uncomfortable, whose sole purpose in life is to not feel any suffering or pain; they run away as soon as a difficult challenge that requires sacrifice shows itself. 

Watchers are those who prefer to sit on the fence, to sit on the sidelines rather than join and immerse themselves fully in the game of life, fearing that doing so would open themselves to the possibility of getting hurt. Like runners, they too seek only comfort and security.

The third type, those who commit, are like the martyrs whose feast we celebrate today. They know they can get hurt, they know they’re risking much, perhaps even their life, they know they may not in fact, succeed, and they know they will have to sacrifice much and perhaps suffer much.

Runners and watchers will most likely never experience pain or suffering, not like those who commit. But neither will they know the joy and the exhilaration of succeeding, of being truly victorious, and of knowing that they had experienced what life truly means. Those who commit, unlike those who run and those who watch, may in fact get hurt, they may even lose their lives, but in their sacrifice and in their loss, they gain true life even more, the kind that only God can give.

“Whoever seeks to save his life shall lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake shall save it”

God gave us life to spend and not to keep. If we live too cautiously, always thinking first of our own profit, ease, comfort, security, if our sole aim is to make life as long and as trouble-free as possible, if we will make no effort except for ourselves, we are losing life all the time. But if we spend life for others, if we forget health and time and wealth and comfort in our desire to do something for Jesus and for the men and women for whom Jesus died, we are winning life all the time.

Imagine what would have happened to life if everyone had wished for nothing but to remain comfortably at home, and there had been no such person as an explorer or a pioneer. What would happen if every mother refused to take the risk of bearing a child? What would happen if all people spent all they had upon themselves? What an awful world this would be if no one ever took a risk to make it better.

The very essence of life is in risking life and spending life, not in saving it and hoarding it. True, it is the way of weariness, of exhaustion, of giving to the uttermost - but it is better any day to burn out than to rust out, for that is the way to happiness and the only true way to God.

And so I leave you with this question: Which one am I? Am I a runner, a watcher, or a risk-taker - one who chooses to fully commit?

"The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." (To surrender one's life to a vision and an ideal is the only way to truly live. Reflections on the Feastday of Saints Isaac Jogues, Jean de Brebeuf, and Companions, Martyrs)

"They tore out his heart after having tortured and killed him; they then ate his heart, hoping that the courage they had seen in him would be theirs". 

These are lines from an account, gruesome and gory for sure, of the martyrdom of Jean de Brebeuf, one of the Jesuit missionaries to North America whose feast we celebrate today.

“Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains a single grain; but if it falls to the ground and dies, it bears much fruit...For whoever seeks to save his life shall lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel shall save it”.

Jean and his companion, Gabriel Lalemant, were tortured by the Iroquois to whom they sought to bring the message of the Gospel. The two, the story continues, were fastened to stakes, scalped, subjected to a “mock-baptism” by being doused with boiling water, then had burning hatchets hung around their necks before they were further mutilated and finally killed. And all throughout the ordeal, Jean de Brebeuf not once cried out; this was what made his torturers marvel at his unusual courage and wished that it too could be theirs.

Isaac Jogues and the other members of the group were likewise subjected to similar tortures. In an account of his ordeal, written before he was able, with the help of Dutch Protestants to escape and temporarily head back home to Paris, Jogues wrote:

"We were made to go up from the shore between two lines of Indians who were armed with clubs, sticks, and knives. I was the last and blows were showered on me. I fell on the ground and thought my end had come, but they lifted me up all streaming with blood and carried me to be tortured some more."

Worse was to follow. The Mohawks cut off two of Jogues’ fingers, and Pope Urban VIII had to remove the canonical restriction in order for him to celebrate Mass when he returned to Paris where he stayed but a short time, for against the wishes of many in his home country, he returned to Canada to resume the missionary work he had begun and for which he suffered tremendous physical pain.

It was on this return that he was finally martyred, killed by the people to whom he had sought nothing more than to bring Christ and his Gospel. Like de Brebeuf, the natives developed a grudging respect for Jogues, calling him, “Ondessonk”, the “indomitable one”; he was not only fearless, he was also relentless in the his pursuit of the mission he believed God had given him.

What allows one to endure such hardship and pain in the name of something he so profoundly believes in? What consumes a person to lay down his or her life, surrendering it all for the sake of a cause to which he or she totally commits? The “North American Martyrs” Isaac Jogues, Jean de Brebeuf, Antoine Daniel, Noel Chabanel, Jean Lalande, Gabriel Lalemant, Charles Garnier, and Rene Goupil, belong to a long line of martyrs stretching all the way back to the early days of Christianity, when men like Ignatius of Antioch gave their lives in absolute surrender to an ideal, a vision of faith and of life that had totally consumed them.

“Let me be food for the wild beasts”, Ignatius wrote, “through whom I can reach God. I am God’s wheat, and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may prove to be pure bread.”

“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”, so goes an ancient saying. But perhaps we can even say that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of humanity itself. The Greek word marturein, simply means “to bear witness”, to live one’s life in such a way that those who see it are themselves led to the light of the vision and ideals one believes in; in the case of a Christian, of course, that vision, that ideal, is none other than Jesus himself.

And for as long as there are those willing to put themselves, and their lives on the line, those willing to take the risk of letting go of theirs fears, worries, and anxieties, in order to bear witness to an ideal of goodness, of truth, and of love, no matter how seemingly insignificant this might seem in the eyes of the world, there will be hope for humanity. For as long as there are those willing to give of themselves completely, to generously spend their life rather than hoarding it, the work of spreading the “Good News” will continue.

“Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains a single grain; but if it falls to the ground and dies, it bears much fruit...For whoever seeks to save his life shall lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel shall save it”.

God gave us life to spend and not to keep. If one were to live too cautiously, always thinking first of one’s own profit, ease, comfort, security, if one’s sole aim were to make life as long and as trouble-free as possible, if one will make no effort except for oneself, he loses life even more. And that is perhaps the greatest paradox of all; the great paradox that encompasses the lives and martyrdom of Isaac Jogues, Jean de Brebeuf, their companions, and countless others like them. For if one spends his life for others, if he forgets health and time and wealth and comfort in his desire to do something for Christ and for the men and women for whom Christ died, one is in reality, winning life and gaining it even more.

Imagine what would have happened to life if everyone had wished for nothing but to remain comfortably at home, and there had been no such person as an explorer or a pioneer. What would happen if every mother refused to take the risk of bearing a child? What would happen if all people spent all they had upon themselves? What an awful world this would be if no one ever took a risk to make it better, if no one ever chose “to witness” to an ideal.

The very essence of life is in risking life and spending it, not in saving it and hoarding it. True, it is the way of weariness, of exhaustion, of giving to the uttermost, even of finally laying down one’s life—and yet, in the end, it is better any day to burn out than to rust out, to die for something than to live for nothing, for that is the way to happiness, that is the way to true glory, and it is the only way to God.

If you get the chance, see the film “Blackrobe”, or read about some of the more recent martyrs of the faith, and marvel at the courage of those whose blood was shed in order for the Church to continue its work of bearing witness to Christ. And the next time you find yourself wanting to run away from a difficult task, a personal problem, or even a tough day—ask yourself: “If the martyrs were willing to give their lives and shed their blood for the what they so totally believed in, what about me? What do I believe in? What am I willing to give?”

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Simplicity, a sign of trust in a God who clothes the lilies of the field, feeds the birds of the air, knows us by name, and has it written in the palm of His hands.

"He instructed them to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick–no food, no sack, no money in their belts".

Simplicity, like many of the other virtues we priests and seminarians are invited to live, is both an external act and an internal disposition.

It embarrasses me to admit it to this day, but as a seminarian, one of my biggest ‘formation issues’ was being a ‘show off’—for some reason, it would always make its way into my evaluations. In class, for instance, my essays were always flowery and grand, my responses to questions in class were mile-long, even the questions I asked were carefully calculated to do one thing and one thing only, show everyone how  better I was than everyone else in the room.

My literature professor, a kind old lady who was a well-known journalist, once took me aside and offered some advice. “You’re good. I know that”, she said. Why do you seem to have this need to prove yourself all the time? There’s no need to show off. Write, think and speak to express yourself, to express who you truly are; never to impress others.”

It’s an advice I took to heart: “Do things always to express; never to impress”.

Why was Jesus so effective? Why did his words and actions penetrate deep into the minds, hearts, and souls of those he met, those whom he taught? Not because he was impressive. His stories and parables were simple. Even his healings and actions, while remarkable in their effects, on closer inspection were quite bland, even gross: mixing spit with mud, writing on sand, using water, using bread, wine, using common things, speaking in common words, using common analogies—unimpressive to the scholar and intellectual, too common and pedestrian for the elite.

And yet Jesus connected in the most profound way. He struck a chord, not only in the minds, but in the hearts of all, the lowly and mighty alike. It’s because he spoke with confident simplicity. Everything he did on the outside was the result of a solid confidence on the inside—the exousia—the ‘power emanating from his being’ of which the New Testament speaks. He spoke—as my literature teacher said—to express who he truly was.

Simplicity of life begins with an internal disposition that says, I need not worry about looking like somebody, because with God I already am. I am loved. I am cared for. I am his child. And I therefore need not worry about anything, not a walking stick, not food, sack, or money in my belt. My Father, my God, and my Savior will always provide. Therefore I can live a life of simplicity, of trust, of tranquility and peace.

“Do things always to express; never to impress”. It’s good advice for those of us who have set out to live the powerful and confident simplicity we find in Jesus himself. 

And it’s a sign of our unshakeable confidence and trust in God who clothes the lilies of the field, feeds the birds of the air, knows us by name, and has it written in the palm of his hands.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

"To thine own self be true." The Challenge of Encountering Christ

A lot of people must have found Jesus to be a rather annoying character. He was not only Mr. Vague to his disciples on a number of occasions, preferring to speak in parables than plainly; he was also Mr. Smartypants to many others, particularly, the Pharisees, scribes, chief priests, and elders of the community. Indeed he seemed to have mastered and perfected the art of annoying or perhaps unsettling people.

Interestingly enough, the “father of western thought”, the philosopher Socrates whom many in his day found hard to deal with on account of his unsettling ways—and who was likewise condemned to death for speaking the truth—is recorded (by his student, Plato) as saying: “If I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, I am a gadfly, given by God...and all day long and in all places I fasten myself upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you”.

All of us of course have a certain image of Jesus that sticks out in our minds. It could be the compassionate Jesus, the indignant Jesus, the Jesus who wept for Lazarus or the widow of Naim’s dead son, or the angry Jesus perhaps, who drove the money changers from the Temple, and so on. I for one, cannot help but laugh at the clever and sometimes even cutting Jesus that we encounter every once in a while. In today’s gospel reading, for instance, as he was pronouncing all woe upon woe on the Pharisees, and a lawyer comes forward and says, “Master, when you say that, you condemn us too.” To which he responds, who knows, perhaps with a wide grin on his face: “Well, woe to you too, you lawyers.” If you think about it, you just can’t help but laugh.

There’s no question about it, Jesus was certainly an unsettling character. We see this again and again in the gospels. In once instance (recounted in Lk. 20:1-8), the chief priests and elders, perhaps irritated at the audacity of this newcomer, approaches him and ask: “Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things?” Instead of answering them directly, however, Jesus instead asks them a question which confronts them with a dilemma and puts them in a very uncomfortable position. “Tell me,” he says, “was John’s baptism of heavenly or human origin?” Now if they answered, divine, they would have no choice but to recognize that Jesus was in fact the Messiah, since John had borne unmistakable witness to this fact at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. On the other hand, if they said it was merely human, the people would surely turn against them since they were convinced that John’s message was from God.

The chief priests and elders were silent for a moment, and then gave the lamest of all lame answers. “We don’t know.” If ever men stood self-condemned, these supposed teachers and leaders of Israel certainly were. For it was the duty of the members of the Sanhedrin to discern true from false prophecy, and they were saying that they were unable to make this distinction. The dilemma led them to shameful self-humiliation.

But you see, the problem with the chief priests and elders was not so much their dislike for Jesus—that was quite obvious. Nor was it simply that they disagreed with him in their hearts. Their real problem, for which they stood condemned again and again, was that they could not even be true to themselves.  It wasn’t so much their dislike for Jesus nor their high-mindedness that was the issue; it was their refusal to acknowledge the truth and commit to it.

There is such a thing as deliberately assumed ignorance and cowardice. If one were to consult expediency rather than his own principles, his first question will be, not “What is the truth?” but, “What is safe to say?” The chief priests and elders are those who prefer to sit on the fence while things get messy and rough and refuse to put their lives on the line. Refusing to take a stand, because this would make them unpopular, they’d rather sacrifice their integrity at the altar of untruth. The Gospel never ceases to warn us of this danger, and reminds us that while integrity and popularity do at times coexist, when they run into conflict, a Christian must choose the path of truth and honesty, most especially with himself, with the core principles that direct and orient his life. This isn’t always an easy prospect, for commitment to the truth is oftentimes painful, but there is no other way.

The message of Christ is truly unsettling, and commitment to him is both a joy and as well as a cross. But unlike the non-committed response of the elders and chief priests which is founded on nothing but cowardice and leads only to shame, the Christian’s commitment to the truth, unsettles only so that he may find himself on a more secure and a much more authentic foundation. Christ’s truth does sometimes pull the ground from under our feet, but it does this, only to establish a new, stronger, and lasting one.

Monday, October 15, 2012

He whose life God holds in His hands shall want for nothing. (A Brief Reflection on the Feast of Saint Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church)

 Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing:
God never changes.
Patient endurance,
attains all things.
He whom God holds
shall want for nothing;
God alone suffices.

(Teresa of Avila)

Beneath the numerous and amazing accounts of healing in the New Testament is a thought that ought to guide and direct the life of every follower of Christ, a thought summed up perfectly in the poem written by St. Teresa of Avila (often called her “Bookmark” since it was found tucked into her prayer book after her death in 1582) as well as a line from one of St. Paul’s letters: “I should like you to be free of anxieties”.

No one is exempt from the storms of life, not even the most faithful and devout Christian. And while Scripture tells us that God “gives his sun to shine on both the good and the bad, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:45), it is equally true that suffering and pain are visited and distributed by life equally on everyone, good and bad, believer and unbeliever alike.

And yet, as Teresa says in her prayer, “he whom God holds shall want for nothing”. One who believes and trusts that his life is always in God’s hands has something that no one else possesses, and that is that unshakeable confidence that no matter what happens, “all will be well”, for “the lives of the just are in the hands of God, and no torment shall ever harm them”. (Wisdom 3:1)

If there is one thing that the Gospel so confidently proclaims over and over again, it is the fact that God is in control; Christ is in charge, even of the darker areas of our lives. Jesus heals the sick, expels unclean spirits, feeds the multitude, calls the sinner to repentance, even raises the dead. And because he is in charge, St. Paul is able to urge us, just as he urged the Christians of his day, to cast off anxiety, worry, and fear in our lives.

“Worry, anxiety, distress, fear”—these words should not be part of a Christian’s vocabulary, for Christ casts them all away, just as he casts away unclean spirits that held people hostage. In the ancient world, illness was attributed to the possession by unclean spirits. We no longer attribute illness to demons—and we no longer fear diseases as much. But fear, worry, and anxiety are still demons that plague our lives. They still have power over us today.

Over and over again, the gospels tell us that with Christ, all these demons that sometimes bother us—are cast out. Christ is in command. God is in charge. And there is no need to be anxious, fearful or worried—about anything. But we do have to ask: what does it mean to say that God is in charge? What does it mean to say that Christ is in command? What does it mean to say that God has control? There are two ways of being in control:

There is the way that suffocates. It takes away our freedom and our ability to decide for ourselves. There’s the kind of being in charge that controls every single detail of a person’s life. But there’s another way, one that gives a person space and room to grow, to be himself or herself, to become the man or woman he or she was destined to be. It doesn’t take away one’s freedom, but simply guides and encourages one to seek the good for himself. The first way stifles the spirit, it hinders growth and often can actually do more harm than good. The second way is the way of Christ, God’s way of being in charge, his way of being in control.

Pope Benedict in his first encyclical simply calls it “love”. And he tells us that there are two ways of loving, two ways that reflect these two modes of being in control: (i) there’s the way the world loves, and (ii) the way that God loves.

The way the world loves is directed towards oneself. It seeks the good of oneself before anything else. It always asks the question: “What’s in it for me?” It loves others because of what it will get back in return. “I scratch your back; you scratch mine”.

Is there anything wrong with this way of loving? Not really. It’s how the world operates. And we should look for a return on our effort. It’s natural and normal to seek a return in our investments, even in other people. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with the way the world loves. But it isn’t God’s way. It may be the “real” way, but it’s not the “ideal” way. And it certainly isn’t the Christian way!

God’s way, Christ’s way of loving is the love that gives and seeks nothing in return. That’s what the pope says in his letter. Now that’s not easy. But it’s also what makes the difference between Jesus and the Pharisees in the gospels.

When Jesus did something good, he asked for nothing in return. When he healed people, he did it for the sake of the sick person. When the Pharisees and Scribes did something good—it was usually so that they can be noticed and praised by people. Their love was usually self-seeking. Christ’s love was selfless. Their love was the way the world loved. Christ’s way of loving was the way of God.

We can certainly love in the way the world loves. But the readings today, and the pope’s letter, invite and encourage us to love in the way God does. It’s not going to be easy, because it’s part of human nature to want something in return, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try, or that we won’t succeed.

We are constantly confronted with two ways of being in charge, two ways of loving: the way of the world—the way that’s founded on fear, on worry, on anxiety, and distress; or the way of Christ—the way that rests secure knowing that, as Teresa of Avila says, “he whom God holds shall want for nothing”. 

Which way shall we choose?

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