Sunday, January 20, 2013

"Lord, I place the water of my life completely in your hands; change me as you once changed water into wine." (Reflections on the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, John 2:1-11)

I was asked by one of my students at the end of one of our philosophy classes this past week: “Is it possible to explain or trace a philosopher’s thought to his psychological makeup or his upbringing?”

Rene Descartes was a mathematician who valued certainty. Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx were all brought up in overly pious households. Raised by his devout aunts, Nietzsche rebelled against the suffocating strictures of his childhood. Immanuel Kant had a personality like Sheldon Cooper in the “The Big Bang Theory”: rigid, methodical, and flat-out weird. [We could probably say the same thing about theologians; for instance, Martin Luther, was said to have a rather scrupulous personality.]

The answer to my student’s question, then, is “yes and no”. Yes, in the sense that one’s psychological, emotional, and personal make-up does color one’s way of seeing things, and thus one’s philosophical (or theological) outlook. They’re inescapable realities that, to a considerable degree, determine us.

And yet they do not do so completely. We are never simply reducible to any of these factors, no matter how powerful they are – and even if they do stay with us throughout our lives. [And so to explain a philosopher’s or a theologian’s perspective by reducing it to his or her personality, character, or background, wouldn’t only be inaccurate; it would also be intellectually shallow, even downright dishonest.]

What’s true of philosophers and theologians, is true of the saints.

This Friday and Saturday, I revisited two books I read many years ago in seminary – I’d recommend you to take a look at them if you get the chance. You’ll find them interesting, especially those who have read Adrian Van Kaam’s “Religion and Personality”, and would like to know more about the profound connection between personality and holiness.

The first book (an older work), by Henri Joly is entitled, “The Psychology of the Saints. The other, entitled, “Ignatius of Loyola: The Psychology of a Saint” was written by William Meissner. Both authors are priests and psychologists. 

Joly and Meissner put forward similar ideas, the most important of which is perhaps the fact that God seems to specifically choose men and women with particular backgrounds, temperaments, and psychological make-ups for specific tasks. But what’s even more astounding is that, these men and women, to a very great extent, were defined by their character and psychological make-up for the rest of their saintly lives.

Consider the following persons, for instance. Francis of Assisi,  joy-filled, exuberant, and care-free man that he was, at certain moments of his life, seemed rather careless. Thomas Aquinas was reserved, thoughtful, and detailed, even nit-picky. Augustine was deeply passionate, though at times he seems a tad fanatical about certain things. Ignatius of Loyola was committed and thorough, though he also exhibited a certain compulsiveness at times. John of the Cross was undeniably a romantic, though reading his works, one couldn’t help but wonder if he had a melancholic temperament. Peter was certainly child-like, though he was also brash and impulsive. Paul had very strong opinions, but was quite stubborn. John XXIII was cheerfully optimistic, some say a tad too much. Mother Teresa was very strong-willed, though some say that at times she could be stubborn, even inflexible. And John Paul who lost his mom at a very tender age had an almost legendary devotion to the mother of God.

One thing’s for sure, holiness didn’t blot out the personalities, characters, and temperaments of these men and women. Rather their commitment to God, allowed them to transcend these and offer them as worthy instruments that God used in order to communicate his grace with those whom they encountered and served.

What is true of the saints, is true of each one of us.

I learned that from my spiritual director when I was a seminarian. You see, I was rather stubborn, skeptical, analytic, cynical, and deconstructionist as a student. I felt easily suffocated by rules. At the same time, I always marveled at the simple and devout ways of some of my more pious classmates and friends.

Two of them in particular, still stand out in my mind. Whenever I was in chapel, ripping to shreds, in my mind, whatever I was reading, and then I’d glance at these two guys, heads bowed, eyes closed, fervent in their prayer, I always felt bad. And on several occasions, I asked my spiritual director, “Why do faith and piety and devotion seem to come so easily to them?” “Is there something wrong with me?” “Maybe I’m not meant for the priesthood”.

His response to me, I now share with you: “That’s not what God made you to be. That’s not how you’re made up psychologically, temperamentally, and intellectually. Never wish to be anything other than what God made you. That wouldn’t be grateful. You will also be missing out on the very things in you that God wishes to use. Learn to accept and offer to God who and what you are, and let Him transform you in the way He wishes”.

Jesus changes ordinary water into wine in today’s Gospel reading, the best wine at the wedding feast, which was then served last. Who we are, and what we are – the totality of ourselves: our character, temperament, psychological, emotional, and intellectual make-up, our background and upbringing – no matter how good or dysfunctional – this is the “water of our life”, which we must bring to Christ in order that he may transform it, into that kind of wine served at Cana.

The saints were ordinary men and women – just like you and me, but what made them special and remarkable, and what would make each one of us become like them –instruments in the hands of God, who can transform us, as he did the water at Cana, is our willingness to stand before him and to say with all sincerity and humility of heart:

“Lord, this is who I am. This is all of me: my strengths, my weaknesses, my fears, my worries, my anxieties, my talents, and skills. I hide nothing from you; I keep nothing from you; I hold nothing back. I stand before you, just as I am, with no masks, no pretensions, no made-up ideal image of myself. Just me. And I am truly grateful. Use me if you will. Change me, as you changed water into wine. I place the water of my life completely in your hands, like the water at Cana, I am totally at your disposal”.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Today, Jesus is baptized at the Jordan by John. His moment of decision and choice had come. At some point, it will be ours. (Reflections on the Solemnity of Jesus' Baptism, Luke 3:15-16,21-22)

Today we commemorate the moment Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan. Liturgically, today’s Solemnity marks the end of the Christmas Season, and the beginning of what we call “Ordinary Time”. Beginning tomorrow, liturgical color shifts back from white to green.

The Gospel reading today likewise marks the beginning of the public life of Jesus, the start of his ministry, and the end of his peaceful, quiet, home life with his family in Nazareth.

Chronologically, we skip some thirty years from the day Jesus was born on Christmas day, to this day, when he is baptized by his cousin at the Jordan. He spent thirty years preparing himself for this day, and he will spend the next three years of his life preaching the Good News of God’s kingdom, healing the sick, and tending to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

Jesus had waited for the right time, for the right signs maybe, for an indication that it was the moment for him to begin the work his Father had given him. Then John shows up on the scene, baptizing and calling himself the messenger sent to prepare the way of the Lord. That was the sign Jesus had been waiting for; it was the indication he needed from God.

This day therefore represents Jesus’ hour of decision. The moment when chronos (time as we ordinarily understand it) intersects and gives way to kairos (the ‘right’ and ‘opportune’ time, the moment of ‘decision’, the moment of ‘choice’).

Saint Augustine in his work, the Confessions, speaks of these two ‘kinds’ of time. The first being ‘chronological’ time, i.e. that kind of time measured by clocks, measured in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years. It is time as we ordinarily experience and understand it; it is the kind of time with which we commonly measure our lives. It is human time. 

Every so often, however, we experience a different kind of time, time as it feels ‘stretched’ or ‘shortened’; it is that kind of time that “flies when  you’re having fun”, time that seems so short because you’re enjoying yourself with a loved one or friend. It’s that kind of time that seems to fly so quickly when you’re enjoying yourself during vacation. But it’s also that kind  of time that seems to “go on forever” when you’re sitting in a boring lecture, or when you’re waiting for something or someone important. It’s that kind of time that children, most especially, experience as they await Christmas Day, when the eagerness and excitement for the day’s arrival makes them all giddy, as if the moment they anticipate and long for were already there.

This isn’t simply human time. Kairos, the way Saint Augustine saw it, is God’s time, the moment when the eternal and transcendent, enters into a most powerfully intimate yet subtle embrace with the temporal and immanent. We all have, at one point or another, and in varying degrees, experienced kairos, God’s time. At such moments, says Augustine, the soul feels itself “stretched” or “distended”, as if an hour were no more than a split-second, or in other instances, an eternity.

Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan was his moment when his own chronos, his ordinary day to day life, lived in the quiet and comfort of his home, with his family at Nazareth, embraced his kairos, the moment of decision, the point of choice, the time when he simply knew, with every fiber of his being, that the work his Father had given him to accomplish, had to begin. It was his time.

Jesus’ time is ours as well. Another Christmas season has come to an end for us. What have we learned? What shall we take with us? Have we become better persons? Have we learned to love a little more? care a little more? be a little more happy and joyful, compassionate and forgiving, content and fulfilled with our lives?

The time of decision comes to each one of us, the moment when everything seems to come together, placing before us an inevitable reality from which we can neither run nor hide. It’s a point which we may accept or reject. Yet there is only acceptance or rejection; there is no wavering, no hesitation, no sitting on the fence, no postponement till a later time.

To each one of us will come that point when we have to choose, to make up our mind about something, to take the leap of faith, to forever fix our gaze forward—to ‘what is yet to come’, and to look back to ‘what has been’ not with nostalgic eyes that long for its return—for it never will—but with hearts and minds that have learned the great lessons of our past, from its high’s as well as it’s low's.

Some of these occasions—these moments of choice and decision we shall yet encounter—will be momentous, like when some of us chose to get engaged, married, move from one place or work to another, or choose the priesthood or religious life. For myself, that moment came years ago, when I chose to leave someone who was so very special to me because I knew deep in my heart that I wanted nothing more in this life than to be of service to others in the priesthood.

Those moments are never easy. In fact they involve a lot of perplexity, anxiety, worry, and yes, sometimes even fear. At times they can be painfully excruciating. Yet as long as fear does not paralyze us, it’s quite alright, even normal, to have some butterflies in our stomach every once in a while.

One thing is certain, occasions like these—when we do find ourselves having to make a big choice—will necessarily involve great risk. But such is life, isn’t it? Better to risk than continuously be undecided in life. Because to live one’s life without committing to something—even if we’re not absolutely certain of it’s results—is to live a wasted, frustrated, discontented, and ultimately, tragic existence.

Risk is a vital and inescapable aspect of our lives as human beings. It’s the only way we grow, mature, develop, prosper, and improve ourselves. An old and wise priest once told me—after I had poured my heart out to him concerning a tough decision I kept putting off—that there are basically three types of persons: those who run, those who watch, those who commit. 

The first two, he said, will most likely never experience the pain and difficulty of taking a risk, they will probably never experience disappointment and pain. But they will also never experience the joy of fighting for their dream, and eventually, the joy of achieving it. There is a certain degree of truth to that adage one often hears from athletes and those into weight training: “No pain, no gain. No risk taken, no success made possible”. 

Abraham was called by God to leave the comfort and safety of his own land, in order to become the "father of many nations". Joseph, the dreamer, was ushered into a life fraught with uncertainty, even peril, when God chose him to be the instrument of his people and his family's safety in Egypt. Moses was yanked out of the wealth and comfort of his princely life in order to lead God's people toward the Promised Land. The prophets were taken from their neat and tidy little worlds in order to proclaim a message that was not always hospitably received. Joseph, Jesus' foster father, was asked to overcome his anxiety and fear in order take care of a woman and a child, not his own. Mary was asked to place her confidence and trust completely in a God who wanted her to become the bearer of his Only Begotten Son. And now it was the Son's turn. [At some point, it will be ours.] 

Jesus knew when John showed up that his moment of decision had come. Nazareth was a peaceful home for him for the past thirty years. Mary was there, his relatives and friends were there. It was his home: familiar, comfortable, convenient, secure and safe. But God had called him from this secure environment, and had called him to follow in what was to become the adventure of his life. So he bid his home goodbye and began his journey with and into the very heart of the God whom he so lovingly and intimately called “Father”, the God whom he knew with every fiber of his being, would be to him as He had been with the Israelites of old, “a pillar of cloud by day, a column of fire by night”. He knew his Father would never abandon him.

The message for each one of us of the great feast we celebrate today is simple: Do not be afraid. God will be with you. He calls you to follow him, and to be like his beloved Son. Have no fear then; for he will take you by the hand and guide you, in everything that you do. And at your journey’s end, he will be there, waiting for you with open arms, as a Father welcomes his son or daughter home. 

As yet another Christmas Season comes to an end, may we bear this thought in mind, and may it be our source of strength, may it guide, orient, and direct our path this year, as we go about living in our Father’s presence, throughout Ordinary Time.

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