Saturday, May 30, 2015

"Love and do what you will." - From St. Augustine's Sermon on the First Epistle of John 4:4-12 (Reflections on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity)


Do you remember what it feels like to fall in love? The thoughts, the feelings, the ideas you had? Falling in love’s a beautiful thing. And no matter how many times we fall in love, the thoughts and feelings are often the same. It’s just a wonderful experience.

The thing about love though, is that beautiful as it is, once you start trying to explain it or put the experience into words, you can’t. That, of course, hasn’t stopped people from trying to describe it.

In one of my philosophy classes at Providence College years ago, we were reading an article entitled, “The Anatomy of Love”. This is how the author, described the experience.

“Dopamine rushes through the brain which makes us feel good. Norepinephrine flows through the brain stimulating production of adrenaline that causes the sensation of a pounding heart. And phenyl-thylamine, creates a happy feeling”

“These chemicals sometimes override brain activity that governs logical thinking. These also play a role in the limbic system which can affect emotion. The limbic system is a group of brain structures, including the hippocampus, amygdala, dentate gyrus, the archicortex, and their interconnections with the hypothalamus, septal area, and the mesencephalic tegmentum. When a shift in the balance of brain power occurs, the limbic system takes over, causing a certain feeling of enchantment”.

After that paragraph, one my students raised her hand and said: “That’s not love.” She was right. “It’s just a scientific formulation trying to say what really can’t be said in words”.

We all know that love isn’t just a chemical reaction in the brain. Those of us who have experienced falling in love, know that however hard we try to explain it, it’s better felt than put in words.

There’s just no mathematical or scientific formula that can fully explain what happens when we love or fall in love. Love, especially if it’s genuine and sincere, is simply beyond our ability to express it in words.

We see it more than we know it. We see it in a husband and a wife’s love for each other, in a father or a mother’s care for his or her children, in a soldier’s love and dedication to his country, or in simple acts of generosity and kindness.

Love, especially when it is genuine, shows itself in commitment, in patience, in kindness, in compassion and in the sacrifices people make for others.

How else do we explain for instance, the death of a young man who during the Tsunami in Bali in 2004, tied a rope around his waist, attached the rope to a tree, then swam to save those who were being carried away by the waves? He saved many, but then the tree was uprooted and he himself drowned in the waters. Or how do we make sense of the death of a young husband who during a tornado in Joplin, MO, used his own body to shield his young wife from flying debris?

There are no scientific explanations for such acts of sacrifice and heroism; just love. “The heart has reasons, of which reason does not know”, says the philosopher Blaise Pascal. Love calculates neither risk nor cost; it simply gives, and when it has nothing more to give, it gives itself, wholly, completely, absolutely. 

“For God so loved the world, he gave his only Son”. The gospel today tells us. Outside this explanation of love, the sacrifice of Jesus doesn’t make sense. One atheistic philosopher used to ridicule Catholics. “You worship a dead man. How stupid is that?” he said.

Without the idea of love, the very symbol which most prominently marks our churches and our homes—the crucifix—is utterly ridiculous. It’s the image of a dead man nailed to a piece of wood.

But from the perspective of love, the cross makes a lot of sense. It shows us the extent of what love is capable of doing. [In fact love makes us forget ourselves and care more for the persons we love. Why that happens, nobody knows.] It’s a mystery. There’s no scientific explanation for it. When you see it, you just know it.

Our belief in the Trinity is very much like the mystery of love. In fact, the Trinity is love. We can’t explain it. We can’t fully understand it. But we know what it means. It’s the Father, Son and Spirit—the greatest symbol of love in our faith.

St. Augustine once tried to explain the mystery of the Trinity but then he realized he couldn’t. The mystery of the Trinity’s too big; our brains are too small. So Augustine summed it up in one word: “Love”, he said. That’s what the Trinity means. It’s that simple.

Like Augustine, we will never be able to fully explain the Trinity. But if we take his advice—if we experience love and give love—we may yet come to understand the Trinity, perhaps not in our heads, but certainly in our hearts.

The Trinity will always be a mystery. But its meaning is simple. “Love”, Jesus says, “it’s my commandment to you”. 

"Love and do what you will. Whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace. Whether you cry out, through love cry out. Whether your correct, through love correct. Whether you spare, through love must you spare. Let the root of love be within. For of this root can nothing come except that which is good". (Augustine, Sermon on the First Epistle of John 4:4-12, no. 8)

Sunday, May 17, 2015

New eyes to see, new ears to hear, new hearts to love, new tongues to tell the story. (Reflections on the Feast of Christ's Ascension)

It’s probably one of the most difficult experiences for parents to eventually find themselves having to let go of their children, to set them free, and allow them to explore and find their own place in the world. There’s always that fear that they won’t make it, or that the world will be too hard on them. On the part of a young man or woman leaving home, the situation isn’t any easier. There’s much more excitement perhaps, but the fear and the difficulty of saying goodbye to familiar and secure surroundings is just as real.
 
We all know how it feels to say goodbye. At one point or another in our lives, we’ve all found ourselves saying farewell, perhaps to a good friend who’s leaving, a parent or child, or relative who’s dying, a girlfriend or boyfriend with whom we’ve decided that things just aren’t working out, or perhaps a job we’ve loved for so long but must now leave in order to seek new opportunities.
 
Goodbyes are rarely easy; but they’re a necessary part of life. We need change in order to grow, whether as children or adults. Without change, something inside us always remains asleep.
 
Years ago, there was a best-selling book entitled Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It’s a rather small book, and still sold in many bookstores. It was a fairy tale about a young seagull’s growth from childhood to adulthood.
 
At a critical point in the story, two beautiful white seagulls appear and tell young Jonathan that it was time for him to take an important step in his life. It was time for him to learn to fly as high as he wants. Jonathan hesitates, but the two birds insist, saying to him: “One part of your life is over; the time has come for another part to begin.”
 
All of a sudden, Jonathan realizes that it is indeed time for him to leave familiar surroundings and to become accustomed to flying into the skies beyond the clouds. He takes one last look at his beloved home, bids it farewell one last time, then soars into the sky, disappearing behind the clouds.
 
There’s a striking resemblance between stories of goodbye, of growth, of endings, and the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus into heaven. Like the young seagull in the story, like those of us who find ourselves at turning points in our lives, Jesus too, had completed an important phase in his life and was beginning another. He was leaving his disciples behind. And yet his departure did not signal the end of his work on earth, merely the completion of its first phase. Now he begins the second phase, to be continued by those he tasked to carry on his work.
 
There’s a story that when Jesus returned to heaven after his resurrection, the angel Gabriel was surprised to see him back so soon. After all, he had only been on earth 33 years and that was too short a time to accomplish such a big job like saving the world.

“Back so soon?” Gabriel asked Jesus.
“Well, I would’ve stayed longer, but they crucified me”, Jesus answered.
“Oh they crucified you?” said Gabriel. “I guess that means you failed huh”.
“No”, said Jesus. “You see I gathered a small group of disciples. And I’m sending them the Holy Spirit. They’ll continue my work”.
“But what if they fail?” asked Gabriel.
“Hmm”, Jesus replied, “then I guess that’s the end of it. I don’t have other plans”.
 
Jesus preached for only three years and to a tiny nation called Israel. The Feast of the Ascension calls to mind and celebrates the expansion of that work, as he commissioned his twelve disciples to preach the Gospel to all nations and promised the Holy Spirit to continue guiding them.
 
But now the original twelve disciples are themselves gone; leaving us, Christ’s followers today, to continue the work they had begun two thousand years ago. As Jesus depended on the twelve after the Ascension, so he now depends on a very real way, on each one of us—to witness to him through our commitment to our faith and the goodness of the lives we live.
 
Being a witness to Christ is perhaps as daunting and challenging in our day and age as it was for his first disciples two thousand years ago. But it is an equally consoling as well as humbling thought that like them, we do our work with the knowledge that Jesus continues to lead and guide us.
 
The Feast of Jesus' Ascension is an invitation for us to give ourselves completely to making this world just a little better for ourselves and for others. It is the only way to fulfill Christ’s command to be witnesses to the gospel.
 
Jesus may have ascended to heaven, but our job, as his followers, is right here. We must continue his work, preach the Good News through our lives, fulfill his command to make disciples of all nations and trust that he will be with us “until the end of the world”.
 
What we celebrate is the fact that two-thousand years ago, on the day of his ascension, Jesus passed on to you and me, the responsibility of being his witnesses, his representatives, his instruments. 
 
We celebrate the fact that Jesus passed on to you and me, the responsibility of completing God’s work on earth: the work of preaching the Gospel, of feeding the hungry, of clothing the naked, of caring for those who are needy, those who are oppressed, those who are in pain.
 
In his book Song of the Bird, Anthony de Mello tells the story of a man who came to understand what it means to be God’s instrument.
 
“On the street (he relates) I saw a small girl cold and shivering in a thin dress, with little hope of eating a decent meal. I became angry at God and said to him: “How could you allow this to happen? What are you doing about it?” But God didn’t answer me... Later that night, God did reply, quite suddenly. “How could you say I haven’t done anything about? I certainly did something about it. I made you”.
 
This is what the Ascension means for us, we who are the church. We share this responsibility, and no one is exempted from it. Each one of us must decide how best to carry out our part in that responsibility. Because one day, we can be certain that it is how we are going to be judged. 
 
“Then the Lord will say to those on his right: ‘Come. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food; thirsty and you gave me drink; in prison and you visited me. I was a stranger, and you welcomed me. I was naked, and you clothed me.’ Then the just will ask him: ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or see you thirsty and give you drink? When did we welcome you  from home or clothe you in your nakedness? When did we visit you when you were sick or in prison? Then the Lord will answer: ‘I assure you, as often as you did it for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it for me’.
 
Let us end our reflection with a prayer. 
 
Lord Jesus, on the Feast of your Ascension,
we ask, as you return to your Father in heaven,
 
Give us new eyes to see your face
in the faces of those in need.

Give us new ears to hear your voice
in the voices of those who cry in pain.

Give us new tongues to tell your story
to those who need to be consoled.
 
Give us new hearts to share your love
with those who need it most.

Amen.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Never-ending Hellos and Goodbyes of Priestly Life. (Prayerful thoughts as one bids goodbye to yet another group of students)


“Oh, only for so short a while
have you loaned us to each other,
because we take form
in your act of drawing us.
And we take life in your painting us,
and we breathe in your singing us.
But only for so short a while
have you loaned us to each other.” (From an ancient Aztec prayer)


Today is graduation day; another school year comes to an end, another group of students will move on, some to continue their seminary studies, others to respond to God's call leading them towards another direction in their lives, equally good, equally beautiful, equally blessed.

Tonight's graduation mass and ceremony will be another amazing event for sure, an important point and marker along the road these young men have been traveling for the past several years. I've seen them grow, from boys to men. And it was a privilege, a grace, and a blessing to not only watch them grow, but to journey with them as they did. Earlier tonight, as I thought about their journeys, and as I said a prayer for each one of them, I could not help but think of the journey that has been, and continues to be my own.

This will be my eighteenth year in seminary ministry. I've known no other, being assigned to seminary work even before I was ordained to the priesthood. They have been magnificent, grace-filled, and truly wonderful years. And tomorrow, I shall once more see a group of students whom I've had the privilege of knowing, teaching, journeying and, in some instances, crying with, move on. This is, truly, a challenging and, on many occasions, arduous journey.

Tonight they shall graduate, then celebrate a little with their family, their teachers and friends. Then they'll finish packing, if they haven't done that already, and then they'll leave. One by one, they'll leave. And as I was sharing with some of them earlier today, by tomorrow night, most of  them will be gone. By Thursday, the rest of the seminary community will head home, as the entire place takes its much needed break for the summer.

By Thursday night, the silence which has been my companion each time those I've ministered to, one by one, take their leave... that silence will again be jarring.

Goodbye's, even temporary ones, have never been easy for me. Despite the stoic façade and the occasional joke from colleagues of me being the "friendliest anti-social person" they know, the fact is, I like people, and I love hanging out with them and "wasting time", if that's even really possible. (I've never thought that time spent with anyone was time "wasted"; after all, the effects of the connections we make, no matter how seemingly trivial, spread out, like ripples caused by pebbles thrown into a pond, endlessly into an eternity hidden from our sight.) Would that my academic work gave more time to "waste"; but duty often calls, and it must always come first.

I am very proud of these young men I've taught, these seminarians who tomorrow will be moving on. And I am grateful, not only for having been blessed with the opportunity to be part of their life's journey, but also for the knowledge that there are still those who seek to live this life, this joyful, challenging, yet supremely beautiful life in the priestly ministry.

It is good, and tremendously encouraging, to know that one has company. We priests come and go; but the work of ministry goes on, and will go on, in the lives of these young men. That is more than a consolation; it is a gift. It is nothing but grace.

Still, for a couple of days, recollections of the past two semesters will linger: conversations in the living room, or in the kitchen and dining area, classes and seminars, Friday masses at St. Vincent’s chapel, fun with Bella (our English bulldog); they were her “uncles”, and she always has a couple of favorites among them. Yes, students come and go; such is seminary ministry. They sink roots for a while, listen to you in class for a time, and then they move on.

I still find saying ‘goodbye’ challenging, hard in fact,  despite having to do it at the end of every year. Nor does it get easier with every year that passes. One builds relationships, makes friends, and then one has to let them go, trusting only that the next step on their journey will be good, because they are in good hands, in God's hands, and He'll always have their back.

Earlier tonight, as I drove into campus, I saw some of them, packing their cars in earnest, getting ready for the drive home, either tonight or Thursday. Soon, what I'll be noticing will be the absence of cars in the driveway, the silence of the hallways, then the darkness of the house when I come home late at night and, yes, that silence.

And when I turn on the lights, when I get back home from spending a few hours in the gym, this Thursday night, I will see the open doors to rooms which my students had occupied for the year. I will walk around the house, with Bella (she’s gotten used to hanging out with the guys; she’ll be missing them for sure), “It’ll be this way for a while”, I will say to myself, “until the next group of students come in the Fall; then we'll start all over again”. I'll then head back to my room and pick up a book I’ve always returned to, again and again at this time of year: Joyce Rupp’s “Praying our Goodbyes”. On Thursday night, I know, I will need a reassuring voice.

The solitude of the life of a priest who has promised to be celibate for the rest of his life - in service, love and commitment to God's People, beautiful as that may be - still stings me the most on such nights. My brothers in parish ministry tell me that for them, its Sunday nights, when the crowds leave, and the quiet of the rectory becomes, once again, their companion for the night.

God's gifts are surely beautiful; and celibacy is one of them. But some of God's choicest gifts, are painful ones. On Thursday night, when all this school year's goodbye's have been said, I shall again partake of the joy and pain of this gift; and I shall once again be thankful for it.

Goodbyes, especially the more intense ones, cause us to face certain ultimate questions in life: “Where am I headed? What are my most cherished values?” Goodbyes create a space within us where we allow ourselves room to look at life in perspective and gradually discover answers to some of those questions about life. We also learn a lot about the significant others in our lives; we learn who is willing to walk the long road with us, whose heart welcomes us no matter what, who loves us enough to stand with us in good times and in bad, who is willing to love us enough to speak the truth for us or to us.

Goodbyes, when reflected upon in faith, can draw us to a greater reliance upon the God of love, our most significant other. With God we can learn to live in hope, with greater meaning, and deeper joy. All this only comes with time and with great care of self.

No one can avoid the ache of autumn. We all hurt in our own way, but hurt we do. The blessedness in the ache within us is that when we grieve over the farewells, we both give ourselves and find ourselves. We become one with whoever and whatever has met us on our journey. We choose to invest ourselves deeply even though we know that the investment might cost us the price of goodbyes and letting-go. We believe that the investment in our love is worth it, for we have entered into the mystery of life where the hellos that follow our goodbyes are guideposts to our eternal home.

We all need to learn how to say goodbye, to acknowledge the pain that is there for us so that we can eventually move on to another hello. When we learn how to say goodbye we truly learn how to say to ourselves and to others:

“Go, God be with you. I entrust you to God. The God of strength, courage, comfort, hope, and love, is with you. The God who promises to wipe away all tears will hold you close and will fill your emptiness. Let go and be free to move on. Do not keep yourself from another step in your journey. May the blessing of the God of autumn be with you”.

Priesthood, I've come to discover more and more, involves a lot of 'hellos' and 'goodbyes', in an endless cycle—because those we meet, those we care for, those we serve, those we love, are never really ours to keep. They merely pass through our hands, through our lives, and then we let go. And that's alright. Because in the end, that's what a priest is; not the destination, only a path, a bridge, a road, one that ends not in himself, but in God alone whose work he does.

Another school year has ended, another group of young men is moving on. I will miss these guys; just as I still miss the many students whom I’ve taught over the years. The ache of autumn is part of a priest’s life; it’s part of everyone’s life. It's part of mine.

The night of graduation has always been a little tough for me, ever since I began teaching; because the tender sting of letting-go is felt rather acutely at that point, and because I know that the day after, the journey begins all over gain. Saint Thomas says that to love someone is “to wish him well”.

To the young men who today have begun another chapter in their lives, all I can really say is that “I wish you guys well. I shall always wish you well."

When someone we love so carefully grows,
with courage and struggle to let love be their home,
we sing, yes, we dance and share our delight
to witness such beauty and a strength so right.

We love you dear friend, and we treasure your life.
May God tenderly hold you in the palm of his hands.

The joy that you’ve found is a gift for us all.
It glows like the velvet of a crystal moonlight.
Over the years, the choices you’ve made,
have clothed you with freedom to nurture and heal.

And as we move on to other horizons of light,
we hope for each other, we drink deeply of life,
to know and to love, to choose and to share,
this garden where we know, happiness dwells.

We love you dear friend, and we treasure your life.
May God tenderly hold you in the palm of his han
ds.

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