Monday, May 20, 2013

What Does it Mean to be a Spiritual Person?

Homily from the Solemnity of Pentecost, 2013

So often these days, the Catholic Church is spoken of  in institutional rather than spiritual terms.  In fact, religion and spirituality are increasingly placed in opposition to one another.  We hear it all the time: “I am really more of a spiritual than a religious person.”

I heard recently that a particular priest has taken to responding to this claim with “No you’re not.”  Not sure that really builds bridges.  But in less jarring tones, I think he is on to something.  We might ask, “Well, what does it mean to be spiritual, to be a spiritual person?”

I’m not sure what people think that means.  Walks in the woods or on the beach?  A kind of emotional sense of well-being?  Proficiency in the techniques of meditation?

And maybe those in our culture who claim to be spiritual need to be pressed a bit – maybe not with such a stark “No you’re not.” but maybe with the question “What does your spirituality look like?” or what I have taken to asking “So do you consider yourself to be a Christian?”

Because Christian spirituality, Christian teaching on the Spirit is pretty clear.  And it is clear in this: there can be no separation of Religion and Spirituality for the Christian.  To be a Christian is to be religious and spiritual, you cannot be authentically spiritual without being religious and you cannot be authentically religious without being spiritual.

There are other religions that practice a religiosity without a spirituality, and there are religions that practice a spirituality without religiosity.  But Christianity is not one of them.

The solemnity of Pentecost that we celebrate today makes this abundantly clear.  There is no authentic Christian spirituality that does not ultimately come from and lead back to Jesus Christ and his Church, gathered in the upper room.  When the Spirit descended on the 12 in the upper room, he inspired and gave birth not to a disassociated spirituality, but to a new human community animated by the grace, to a religion, the religion of Jesus Christ.

So where is this idea of the spiritual being opposed to the religious coming from?

I think that if we look at it, what people often are referring to, in contrasting the spiritual and the religious, is the interior and the exterior expressions of faith.  The thinking is that religion is an outward expression of faith, whereas the spiritual is interior.  And so when they claim that they are spiritual but not religious, the claim is really that their faith life is an interior matter that they do not believe needs to be or profits from being shared with others or lived in communion.

But this makes no sense - certainly not for the Christian, but nor does it even make sense for human beings.  As human beings, what we do affects who we are and who we are affects what we do.  There is no way that our religious activity or lack thereof can help but impact our spiritual lives, or that our spiritual lives can help but impact our practice of our faith.  Christ pointed this out directly and concretely throughout his life: that the Christian cannot be a whitewashed tomb, empty religiosity and pietism, but neither can the Christian be mere spirituality without concrete actions of love and compassion and worship that are carried out in communion with others.

In Christ, the outward expression and the inward disposition are united, the spiritual and religious are combined, the Spirit and the Word become Flesh work together to accomplish God’s saving work.  In Christ we are given the model of spiritual and religious authenticity: a harmony of soul and body that is united in following the will of the Father.

Here at Mass this harmony is profoundly lived: we come before our Lord, we worship him with signs and actions, and he tangibly and visibly places himself in our hands, giving us his Body and Blood to nourish us and strengthen us in the life of faith.  And at the same time, our hearts, our minds are opened – the Holy Spirit is ever at work within us to transform and convert us through Word and Sacrament, to ensure that the words and ritual actions of Mass are not just rolling off our tongues and being superficially performed.

It is so important for our world to know that this place, that our Church, our spiritual home is not a place of empty religiosity. No.  Here, religion opens us to the Spirit, to Pentecost.   Words that we have said a million times come to life in these walls, gestures that we have made by the thousand take on new meaning.  We are fed here with a food that is not mere earthly food – we are given a spiritual food, spiritual drink.  We learn here from Christ how to be spiritual people, how to love, how to sacrifice, how to be generous and honest and courageous.  Our souls are transformed in this place as our bodies go up and down, standing and sitting, kneeling and genuflecting and making the sign of the cross.  These are outward gestures and signs that express and help us to enter into the real drama of conversion and redemption that is being accomplished among us.

As your priest for the last 5 years, I have had a front row seat on this spiritual drama.  I have seen the Holy Spirit at work in you.  I have watched many of you experience conversion, redemption, consolation, and renewal in these walls.  I have seen the work of Pentecost, of the Holy Spirit, continued in our midst, in this upper room.  I think that is one of the great blessings of being a priest, this front row seat.

What does it mean to be a spiritual person?  For the Christian, there is no way to be spiritual without being religious.  Because being spiritual is a gift, a gift that is given by Holy Spirit to those who have been joined to Christ and his body, who seek to be authentically religious.  The Spirit is a gift given to those men and women who religiously go to the upper room as the apostles did with Our Lady, who place themselves before the Spirit of God so that he can transform them, renew them, purify them.  Men and women who, over time and with much effort and support from the whole Church, are gradually filled and one day we pray that they are entirely permeated with the grace of the Holy Spirit.  In other words, that they become saints.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

One in Love

Homily for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, 2013

Back when I was an undergraduate philosophy student, we read quite a bit of Plato.  And you might think that ancient Greek philosophers would be boring, but often we found ourselves quite amused.  For example, in Plato’s Symposium, there is a speech given by a character named Aristophanes, who argues that originally there were three human genders, not just two.  In addition to male and female, he says, there was a third, which was a combination of the two.  These were the original people, he said.  They were round, their back and sides forming a circle; and they had four hands and the same number of feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike. They could walk upright, backwards or forwards, but when they wanted to run he said they would roll over and over at a great pace, turning on their four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air.

That’s an image…
What was Aristophanes point?  Why did he say that these primordial androgynous people must have existed?  Love.  “What do people want of one another?”, he asked.  “Is there a person who would deny or would not acknowledge that a meeting and melting into one another, a becoming one instead of two, is the very expression of his ancient need?”  And this is because, he says, human nature was originally one and we were a whole, but now because of the wickedness of mankind God has dispersed us.  He says that the desire and pursuit to be whole, to be united to our long lost other half  is the origin of love.

In case you were wondering, this is not Catholic teaching.
We believe that God created us male and female, not as rolly polly androgynous tumbler people.  But Plato identified, some 400 years before Jesus walked on the planet, something that is very true and very much a part of our tradition.  That human beings are marked with a fundamental desire, or what he called an ancient need, to be one, to belong.

Aristophanes’ rather comical explanation of the origin of this deep human longing focuses on the natural and biological world.  That we have a desire for unity because in our maleness or femaleness we are incomplete people.  And isn’t it interesting that in our culture today it seems that many people have a similar idea about love.  Love is depicted as a desire to find the other half, to find Mr. or Mrs. right, to find someone who we will serenade with the words of Jerry Maguire, “You complete me.” For so many today, especially for so many of our young people, this is what they think finding love, finding the unity and the oneness they are made for, looks like.

But Christ teaches us that love is far more than a mere natural pairing of two imperfect halves seeking to be completed in one another.  Otherwise we would teach that marriage represents the perfection of love.  What the Church does teach is that the complementarity of men and women, the love of marriage is a sharing in the love of Christ, a love that is not exhausted in marriage, but that is ultimately rooted in union with God.  Love is made perfect in Christ, and in the union, the communion that we share together in him.  And so rather than finding love by paring up, Christ teaches us that human beings are made to find love and live in love by being part of a body that is alive in the Holy Spirit who unites us to one another and to God.

That we are open and receptive and responsive to this profound communion of love is Christ’s most solemn, most intense prayer.  It is the prayer we hear in the Gospel reading today.  The prayer that he prayed in the last moments of his life on earth, as he prepared to enter into his passion and death: this is his final request, his last will and testament:
“Holy father I pray for all who will believe in me, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us… so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me.”

What does it mean to be one?  In Christ, our unity, our oneness with him and with one another is meant to be incredibly profound and multifaceted.  It is true that Christ’s love is manifest in a oneness and communion that exists in a unique and beautiful way between spouses, but it also exists in the love between parents and children, between friends and neighbors, between priests and religious and laity, between fellow workers and collaborators, and with God's grace, Christ tells us that our love must even extend to the stranger and to our enemies.

Jesus has taught us that love is not found in another who completes us, but in a profound communion of life shared with God, with one another, with our world, extending even to the most remote ends of society, encompassing the downtrodden, the scorned, the ridiculed, the forgotten.

Love is a multifaceted harmony of life, a symphony, not a duet.  It is a large, colorful pallet of paint, not black and white, yin and yang.  It is a giant and deep ocean full of myriads of creatures, an infinitely expanding universe of relationships of various shapes and sizes and durations and characteristics all united and brought together and animated by God himself, who is love.

God gives us his life in the Eucharist that we may be one in him, that we may enter fully into this ocean, this universe of love, the matrix of his life.  So that together he can build us up into a dwelling place of love.  He wants us to have the joy, the peace, the freedom that come from living together in him – free of rivalries and jealousies, bitterness or hatreds.  Sharing a communion, a life, that we could never find on our own or with another half; a life, a love that only he can give, a divine love, a oneness in heart and mind and desire that extends to all people and to all creation itself and that will endure even beyond death.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Easter is a Growing Season

Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter, 2013

This coming Thursday we will celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension of our Lord.  It’s hard to believe, but yes, it will already have been 40 days since Easter this Thursday.

The season of Easter is 50 days long, continuing beyond the Solemnity of the Ascension, it continues on until the celebration of Pentecost, 10 days later – but there is a different tenor, we might say that our observance of Easter takes on a different flavor in the last 10 days of the season.

For the first 40 days of Easter the Church follows the life of the apostles who celebrated the resurrection of the Lord and then were taught by him as he appeared to them and explained the scriptures to them, broke bread with them, and spoke to them about the mission that would be entrusted to them.  It is a time of rejoicing and savoring the revelation of the empty tomb: that Christ has returned from the gates of hell to bring new life to his people, that in Christ, God has given us the promise of immortality and happiness with him forever.  In a sense, it is a youthful time, a time of exuberance, a time to sit at the feet of the Lord, to listen and be instructed by him as he shows us his wounded hands and feet and tells us of his love.  To be as lambs gathered around our good shepherd, to watch, to listen, and to be fed.

Sacramentally, we might look to Baptism and the quintessential sacrament of these days, the Sacrament that manifests the paschal mystery and opens to us the life of grace.  The white baptismal garment is reflected in the white liturgical color of the season, the paschal candle from which we all received the light of Christ stands before us, and the priest is encouraged to replace the penitential rite with the sprinkling rite, reminding us of the waters of baptism.

But there is a transition that we begin to sense even in our readings today.  Easter matures in these days.  And we are reminded that Christian initiation, the full life of a Christian is not exhausted in Baptism, that there are three sacraments of initiation that are required to bring the Christian to full maturity in Christ.

In a sense, the Solemnity of the Ascension marks the end of the childlike phase of Easter and the entrance into Easter’s adolescence.  Jesus Christ our Lord will ascend to heaven, to be with the Father, and we, the Church on earth, will find ourselves in a somewhat awkward situation: no longer able to sit at the feet of the Lord as a child, and yet not fully mature in faith that has been enlivened by the Spirit.
It is kind of like that time when your voice changes as a young man – when you go from singing full soprano to a few croaky notes.  Or as an athlete, when the limbs all of a sudden shoot out, you grow that 6 inches in the summer, and then proceed to trip and stumble over every inch you’ve gained.

Yet this awkwardness of Easter’s adolescence is a beautiful time.  And is a beautiful movement in the season of Easter – it is a season of anticipation, a season of longing, a season of intensified prayer as we wait and ask for Christ to bring his Church to full stature, to raise us through the gift of the Holy Spirit to the full maturity and dignity that we have been promised as Sons and Daughters of the living God.  Christ tells us in the Gospel today, “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.  The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.”

This is not lent, this is not a season of penance, fasting, and abstinence.  We are within the season of Easter, the season of new life in the resurrected Lord.  Yet we are reminded today that new life means new growth, and growth sometimes has awkward moments, transitions that are not due to sin but are due to the fact that for us human beings, unlike the angels who are mature from the day they are created, maturity is a process that requires time and grace.

As we mature in the life of grace many times we are given capacities that we don’t immediately understand how to use.  We are given desires that cannot be immediately fulfilled, standards that initially are beyond our reach.  And so a sense of suspension, of wanting to do or being called to do something that we are not capable of doing - a spiritual awkwardness - often results.

This is a common experience for many of us when we begin to explore the gift of mature prayer. It can feel incredibly dry and distracted.  Or when we begin to seriously study the scriptures and teachings of our faith and we begin to realize how little we know and so many doubts arise.  Or when we reach out in service to others - maybe bringing communion to the sick, or dropping food off at the homeless shelter, or working on a community service project - and at first perhaps feel awkward and out of place.  Or when we attempt to bring up a conversation about spiritual or moral matters that needs to happen with a spouse or a child or a friend or coworker or neighbor, and wonder if we said a thing that made any sense or if we just upset the other person.

These last 10 days of Easter help us each year to remember something very important: that new life in Christ is not a moment of salvation received and celebrated, but a dynamic life of grace that is continually renewed and deepened within us, prompting us to ever-greater intimacy with Christ and with one another.  And that means persevering through the disconcerting moment of the Ascension, not once, not a few times, but constantly: passing through a periods of longing, of feeling dry and distant, of feeling awkward and incapable, of even feeling frustrated and overwhelmed as we seek to make progress.

Grace is never static, salvation is not instantaneous.  Growth is required for us to come to full stature, to be built up into that splendid city of Jerusalem that we hear of in the 2nd reading, to become those living stones that can form the dwelling place for the most high God.  Easter is a growing season, a season that is meant to help us deepen our commitment to living according to the new life we have received in Christ.

May we embrace the spirit, the tenor of these final days of Easter, not fleeing from, but persevering through the disconcerting seasons that accompany genuine growth in faith.  May our willingness to enter into the adolescence of Easter prepare us for the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, prepare us to receive the full mantle, the full mission entrusted to the adopted sons and daughters of God.

Our Love makes us Credible

Homily from the 5th Sunday of Easter, 2013

“This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

This is what Christ says should be the distinguishing characteristic of his disciples: that we are experts at loving others.  When looking back at the history of our faith, we can see that when the Church has excelled in love, it has grown and flourished.  We think of the first few centuries when Christians lived in close community, served the needs of the poor, and witnessed to their faith even to the point of death.  The monks and hermits and scholars of the middle ages who preserved culture and sought spiritual wisdom.  The mendicant orders of Dominicans and Franciscans who led lives of poverty and zeal.   How can we even begin to number the many other millions of Catholics, of Christians throughout the centuries and today who are animated by incredible love and sacrifice for others, who have been and who are true disciples of Christ because they follow in his footsteps of love.

Yet, in recent years I know that many of you, like myself, are very concerned to see how the reputation of our Church, our mother, has been badly damaged.  I think it is safe to say that for many people in our society today, the Church’s beauty, her virtue, her compassion, her generosity of heart and overflowing love have been overshadowed by political battles and controversial social teachings.

Some have said: the problem is with those who lead her.  If they would just stop so rigidly holding on to outdated and intolerant teachings.  If the hierarchy would just get out of the way and allow the Church to adjust to modern ideas and ways of thinking, then we could be the Church of love again.  Then the world would see in the Catholic Church the love of Christ.

That was the sentiment that I heard so frequently during the recent papal elections – that the hierarchy needed to change the teachings of the Church – I’m sure many of you heard these thoughts expressed over and over.  That basically the hierarchy is keeping the Church from being a sign of love for the world, keeping the Church from following Christ’s commandment given in our Gospel today.

And then the Cardinals elected Pope Francis.  And wasn’t that interesting.  Because notice, the Pope has not changed a single Church teaching.  In fact, he has reaffirmed teachings, even controversial teachings.  But what a difference in how he has been received, huh?  Why?  Because Pope Francis seems to understand that people recognize the face of Christ most clearly not in teachings, but in loving actions.  This is how people know that we are disciples, this is what opens the doors of the heart and mind: love.  When we encounter love, when we experience love, we experience God, God is glorified.  When Pope Francis stopped the pope mobile and went to visit and kiss the disabled, when he visited those in prison on Holy Thursday, when he decided to live simply with other clergy and religious in the Casa Santae Martae – God was glorified, people recognized a disciple of Christ.  And then, only then, they were ready to hear what he had to say, ready to hear the teachings.  Why would you listen to someone speak about what is good and evil, why would you care what they were teaching, if you did not recognize by their actions of love that they were close to God?

Christ did not say in the Gospel passage we hear today what many people might think he should have said: “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you make sure that everyone is faithful to my teachings.”  I’m not saying that we should not care about teachings!  But what I am saying is that the world will only listen to those who are faithful to the teachings of Christ when it recognizes that we are his disciples by our love that reaches out into the world.  And I’m not just talking about the pope or bishops or priests, although they must certainly take the lead.  But the credibility of the Church, the reputation of our faith, rests on all of our shoulders.

I think of how often it has happened to me that after being the recipient of compassion or generosity from someone I have been prompted to reevaluate my ideas about my impressions or beliefs.  Hasn’t that happened to all of us?  How many of those in our community would be likewise prompted to reevaluate their take on the Church after a positive encounter with one of us?

There is so much negative pr out about the Church, and that is not likely to change any time soon.  In fact, that has always been the case.  We could try to argue, to defend the teachings until we are horse from talking.  Try to convince people that we are a faith that teaches love of neighbor and enemy, for that matter.  That is not intolerant but that defends those who are persecuted and alienated from society.  And maybe we might convince a few people, although I doubt very many.  And even if we did, I’m not sure what kind of a victory that would be.  “Okay, I guess you’re not as sinister as I thought.”

But the Church cannot fundamentally be a group that is bound together by a creed.  We are bound together by the life, the love of Christ, a love that we must live by and teach to our children and explain to our world.  And this is what will make the Church grow and thrive, not primarily argumentation about doctrinal points, as important as they might be.  Think about the Early Church for a moment.  They had no common Creed or Catechism.  They had horrible pr – they were accused of being cannibals and of being enemies of the state.  They were being violently persecuted and exterminated.  And yet the Church has never grown so quickly and been so vibrant.

And this is because the early Christians were so profoundly aware that what bound them together, what binds us together in Christ, the grace that we receive in the sacraments, cannot be explained so much as it is lived, as it is demonstrated, as it is revealed in our love for others.  And not primarily in the hierarchy, although the holiness and leadership of the hierarchy is critical, but so is a lived holiness of life by Christians who are living and loving in the day to day world.

Pope Francis gave an interview in 2011 with an Argentinian Catholic news agency.  In the interview, then Cardinal Bergoglio spoke about what he called a sickness that is undermining the Church in the West.

“We priests,” he said, “tend to clericalize the laity, focusing fundamentally on the things of the clergy and, more specifically, the sanctuary, rather than on bringing the Gospel to the world.  We do not realize it, but it is as if we infect them with our own disease. And the laity — not all, but many — ask us on their knees to clericalize them, because it is more comfortable to be an altar server than the protagonist of a lay path. They begin to believe that the fundamental service God is asking of them is to become greeters, lectors or extraordinary ministers of holy Communion at Church rather than to live and spread the faith in their families, workplaces, schools, neighborhoods, and beyond.

The reform that’s needed, he continued in that interview, is “neither to clericalize nor ask to be clericalized. The layperson is a layperson and has to live as a layperson with the power of baptism, which enables him to be a leaven of the love of God in society itself, to create and sow hope, to proclaim the faith, not from a pulpit but from his everyday life. And, like all of us, the layperson is called to carry his daily cross — the cross of the layperson.”

Pope Francis teaches us, guides us, leads us, and inspires us.  And he is an example to us of the love of Christ – he kisses babies, maybe hundreds, he washes prisoner’s feet.  But these actions are primarily meant to be gestures and signs for us that are meant to point the way of authentic discipleship that we are all called to live.  Yet Pope Francis reminds us that the Church is sick, very sick, if Christ is only preached by the hierarchy within its own walls.  Your work, the work of every lay person, is to bring glory to Christ in the world, to make his life, his love tangible, real, incarnate in the places where you live, in our society and culture.

“This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”