Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Have You Lowered Your Spiritual Aspirations?

Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent, 2013

These descriptions of encounters with God that we find in the scriptures this weekend: think of just how incredible they are.  They read like something we might expect from a fantastical adventure book.

In the first reading from Genesis today we listen to this incredible exchange that Abraham had with God.  Speaking back and forth, receiving promises from God, Abraham experiences a deep intimacy with the Lord.  As the sun sets, he falls into a trance, and enters into a mysterious darkness as a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch pass between the pieces of the sacrifice he had laid before God.

And then, in our Gospel reading, we have this incredible theophany, or revelation of God in the transfiguration.  While Jesus was praying, Peter, James, and John witness his face change in appearance and his clothing become dazzling white.  Moses and Elijah appear with him in glory, and then a cloud descends upon them from which the voice of God speaks to them.

Our readings today emphasize the intimacy that the Triune God desires to have with humanity.  He invites each of us us, as he invited Peter, James, and John, into the very depths of his plans for us.  He does not hide himself from us, in Christ, God is revealed.

But we hit a snag with this, don’t we?  Then why don’t most of us experience God like Abraham, Peter, James, and John?  Why don’t we experience him the way that so many saints have experienced his presence in their lives, in such real and tangible ways?  Doesn’t our experience in our modern day and age show that God only reveals himself like this, in these kinds of dramatic and intimate ways, with a chosen and privileged few?  That the rest of us must be content to be those who are blessed because we believe even though we have not seen?  That walking with God, knowing and being known by him, is only for a chosen few?

No.  And this is very important, that we refuse to accept this idea that God is content or that it is somehow his plan to be distant from us.  We must resist the horrendously low spiritual aspirations of the culture in which we live - these hallmark endorsed vague feelings of God, this superficial sentimentalism that masquerades as genuine faith.  So many people think that this is what it is like to know God, that this is as good as it gets: to just feel good about life and about yourself, to be content and to be hopeful about one day being in a better place with him. Wishes and hopes, dreams and aspirations…

To this idea, to this vague, washed out spirituality, Christianity gives a decisive rebuttal.  No, that is not as good as it gets.  That is not what God wants for us – vague notions of a spiritual nature and the dim hope of heaven.

God wants us to know him, really and truly.  He challenges us to know him, to enter into a covenant with him, to be in on his plans, to be involved, to participate in the drama of his redemption.  To no just be obliviously floating through life in a bubble of niceties.  No – we are called right into the fray, into real spiritual dimensions that are mind boggling.  Beyond the limitation and banality that comes from living in a world constructed on our own terms.  God invites each of us into his life, a life that is so far beyond us, so immense, so beautiful, so alive that it is overwhelming.

And do we not want this too?  Aren’t we made, don’t we long for life that is more than what we can imagine?  Life that is more than we want?  Life that is beyond our ability to achieve or to even conceive?  Divine life, the life that God wants for us, is also the life we have been made for.

So why don’t we have this kind of intimacy with God?  Why don’t we enter dark clouds and speak with God?  Why aren’t we terrified out of our minds when we approach this altar, overwhelmed by the beauty of God’s love poured out for us?

Because, truth be told, we don’t want him enough.  No, we don’t.  If we did, we would spend as much time praying as we do watching tv or in idle conversation.  If we did, we would give as many hours to the study of his word in the scriptures as we give to study of our careers and hobbies.  If we did, we would be known throughout our community by our love for one another and our amazing generosity to the least among us who Christ tells us embody him.  If we did, opportunities to deepen prayer and learning about God offered by the parish would be packed and overflowing and the line at the confessional would wrap around the building.

What is limiting our intimacy with God is on our end, not his.  He wants each of us, he gives each of us the grace of the sacraments and scriptures to know him like Abraham, like Peter, James, and John.

It’s lent, it’s time for your priest to help you ask some hard questions:
Is God really number one with me?
Is this priority in words only, or also in my everyday decisions?
Do I often reflect that I am only a pilgrim here on earth, here for only a short while – and do I think of my eternity as I ought?
Am I convinced that the closer I am to the Lord in prayer the better I will be for everyone else?
Is my busyness often due to much ado about nothing?
Would I accept my husband or wife of close friend saying to me “I have no time to spend with you, I’m too busy.”?

The Triune God invites, calls to us, reminds us through St. Paul: Our citizenship is in heaven.  In the midst of our skeptical and faithless age, we cannot grow faith of heart, we cannot be content with a superficial knowledge of God and his ways, we cannot lower our spiritual aspirations.  We are called to ascend the mountain with Peter, James and John, not to settle for the valley.  We have been made to witness the glory of the Lord, to know him and be known by him.  To see our God face to face.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Prayer: Life Seasoned with the Salt of God's Love

Homily for the First Sunday of Lent, 2013

Lent is a time when the Church encourages us to intensify our spiritual efforts, particularly by undertaking the time tested disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  Today, as we hear of Christ’s journey into the desert for 40 days, I would like to focus for a bit on our efforts in prayer during our 40 days of Lenten desert.

For all of us, who live in what might be described as a technological jungle, prayer is a challenge.  Go to the restaurant, you can hardly hear yourself think.  Sound piped into the stores.  Even pumping gas, the thing starts squawking at you.  Tvs are often on at home.  Music or talk radio in the car.  It is a noisy and distracted world that we live in.  And we can almost become accustomed to this and think that people have always lived like this, that only monks and hermits live in silence.

But until modern times, most every person on the planet would have lived with long periods of silence in their everyday lives.  Working out on the fields or in the woods – they did not have boom boxes or ipods.  It’s not like they could play a troupe of musicians to follow them around.  At home doing chores – perhaps they whistled from time to time or sang songs to themselves, but that would grow older after a while.  While studying or working in various trades – really in most every human activity until recently, most people experienced long periods of silence.

But we live in a different world, a world that seemingly never stops, never just sits and listens.

And it is easy to fall into the trap of becoming habituated and even dependent on an environment of perpetual noise, to the point where we become uncomfortable with quiet and immediately find ourselves turning something on so that we never have to be alone with the silence.  And this is a great danger to us, and a tendency of our modern life that we need to fight to resist.

Because a reasonable amount of silence and solitude is not something that the Christian can avoid without peril.  We cannot live a perpetually distracted life, only allowing God to break in now and then as if he were yet one more distraction in the long line of distractions.  There are fundamental conversations that God needs to have with us that can only happen in the silence, in deep prayer.  Just as you would never take your spouse out on a valentine’s date sitting in the middle of the highway if the relationship was important to you, so we cannot pretend that our relationship with God is important to us if we do not set aside time to be with him quietly in prayer.  If we do not enter into the desert.

Of course the question soon arises: but what do we do in the desert?  What do we do in the silence?  Many of us suddenly find ourselves overcome with distractions.  It can be worse than the noise: all of a sudden all of the things that we need to do, all of the concerns and worries about the day and about the future come pouring through the flood gates.  And furthermore, it is often in the desert when the wiles of the evil one are unmasked.  When all of the distractions have been cleared away and we are forced to face our demons, we have to face our sins, our insecurities.

The scriptures teach us how to respond when we encounter distraction and temptation in prayer:
In the first reading, Moses tells the priests that when offering sacrifice they are to recount the good deeds of the Lord, to remember what God has done for them.  And this is most profoundly done when we turn to the scriptures, as our Lord did when he found himself tempted by Satan.  We too, when we come to prayer, to silence, can find great help in avoiding distraction by focusing on God’s word, on the scriptures.
One of the most sure methods of prayer, called lectio divina, or sacred reading, is based on this experience.  In lectio divina we begin with a passage of scripture, perhaps the readings from the day.  After thinking about them, we work to then apply the meaning to our lives, to hear the lesson that God is trying to teach us through his word.  And then finally this reflection leads to a conversation with God himself, to a dialogue of prayer.

The rosary or other devotional prayers like the divine mercy chaplet can also help us to enter into the posture of prayer before God, provided that we do not become narrow in our focus, just trying to get our rosary or other devotion in for the day.  We need to remember that each decade of the rosary invites us to contemplate an aspect or mystery of Christ’s life, and to be open to hearing what Christ wants to teach us through these mysteries.

Simply accomplishing a prayer, whether it be the rosary or the divine mercy chaplet, or the liturgy of the hours, can never be the goal.  The goal is an openness with God, a time of listening to him and speaking with him as we would speak with a friend.  If we are in the middle of prayer and feel ourselves wanting to just sit with God, to just be with him in silence, listening, then we should not be afraid to let our words pause for a moment.  Again, the goal is to be open to Christ.

Christian prayer begins and ends with these intentional and necessary times of uninterrupted and intense prayer that we incorporate into our morning or evening routines, but we should all seek to live prayerfully throughout the day.  We are called to live in a way that is recollected, that is open to God, in situations where we are not able to sit down and read or without a rosary: we might be in the car or working on some project, shoveling snow… something like that.  And yet in all of the different circumstances of life, we are invited by the Holy Spirit, especially in this season of Lent,  to make every effort to keep our eyes fixed on God.

1600 years ago, St. John Chrysostom spoke to his parishioners about this kind of daily practice of prayer.  He told them “Our spirit should be quick to reach out toward God not only when it is engaged in meditation; at other times also, when it is carrying out its duties, caring for the needy, performing works of charity, giving generously in the service of others, our spirit should long for God, and call him to mind, so that these works may be seasoned with the salt of God’s love, and so make a palatable offering to the Lord of the universe. Throughout the whole of our lives we may enjoy the benefit that comes from prayer if we devote a great deal of time to it.”

Prayer is essential.  Christ was able to resist the temptations of the evil because he was united to his heavenly father in prayer.  His miracles were all worked in prayer.  He prayed from the beginning of the day to the end, and he taught his disciples and all of us that we should strive to pray without ceasing.  To be mindful, really is what that means, to be aware and mindful that our Lord walks with us, and to be quick to turn to him.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

It is Beautiful to be Old!

Ash Wednesday, 2013

I imagine that many of us had particular plans about lent this year.  Maybe plans to give up certain things that we have traditionally given up each year, such as sweets or tv, or new routines that have been planning, like going to daily Mass or the Stations of the Cross.  These practices of increased prayer and fasting are very important in allowing us to be open to the conversion that Christ wishes to offer us this season.

But then on Monday we had quite a surprise, didn’t we?  The pope will be resigning.  And so our  40 days of preparation for Easter will now coincide with preparation for and the receiving of a new Pope.  Even though these events will take place in Rome, I am sure that we will all be quite aware of the developments through modern media – which is a real blessing.  Because the Pope is not just the bishop of Rome; he is also the supreme pontiff of the universal Church, one who is a sign and a protector of the unity of all Catholics to Christ and to one another.

So now our lent takes on a different flavor, doesn’t it?  And we might ask, well what flavor?  Is it the flavor of endless speculation about who will be the next pope?  I certainly hope not.
Is it the flavor of endless comparing of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and trying to figure out what qualities the next pope will need?  I think that is not really for us to decide.  So how can we observe lent this year while at the same time taking into account this critical time in the life of the Church?

I would suggest two ways:
1. By increasing our prayer for the Church.  We have already been praying for a new bishop.  Now we have the added responsibility of praying for a new pope.  Concretely, I would suggest that we pray for the Church and for the cardinals who will elect the pope on a daily basis in the coming weeks.  Even if it is a short prayer in the morning.  The media and much of our world do not understand the truth about how leadership is selected in the Church: that it is a process of prayer and fasting, not one of power and politicking.  And we can participate in this prayerful discernment here in our parish as we ask God to help the Church to be receptive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit as she discerns who will be our new earthly shepherd.

2. But there is a second way that I think our Lenten observance can change this year, that I want to emphasize in particular.  And that is in our prayer for the pope, who has reached a point in his life where his health is failing, and to also be particularly attentive to those who share in the same cross, the elderly of our parish.  How quickly the pope himself has been forgotten in the news coverage, as tv crews run off to try to figure out who the next guy will be, and how easily in our own community we pass by the homes and institutions where our own elderly live.

We tend to focus on the first two of the three aspects of Lent: prayer and fasting.  But this is also a season that should be characterized by almsgiving: the giving of ourselves, of our time, of our gifts, of our financial resources, of our attention to others; a time of generosity.  The pope’s announcement reminds us of the cross that our older brothers carry – and encourages us to reach out in support and in solidarity with them.  For those of you who are older and who are experiencing the burdens of old age, I encourage you in a particular way to be united to the pope in prayer and in reaching out to others.  I would like to close with an address given by Pope Benedict when he visited a nursing home in Rome this past November, probably already then aware that he would be resigning this spring:

“I come to you as Bishop of Rome, but also as an old man visiting his peers. It would be superfluous to say that I am well acquainted with the difficulties, problems and limitations of this age and I know that for many these difficulties are more acute due to the economic crisis. At times, at a certain age, one may look back nostalgically at the time of our youth when we were fresh and planning for the future. Thus at times our gaze is veiled by sadness, seeing this phase of life as the time of sunset. This morning, addressing all the elderly in spirit, although I am aware of the difficulties that our age entails I would like to tell you with deep conviction: it is beautiful to be old! At every phase of life it is necessary to be able to discover the presence and blessing of the Lord and the riches they bring. We must never let ourselves be imprisoned by sorrow! We have received the gift of longevity. Living is beautiful even at our age, despite some “aches and pains” and a few limitations. In our faces may there always be the joy of feeling loved by God and not sadness.

Dear friends, at our age we often experience the need of the help of others; and this also happens to the Pope.  I would like to ask you to seek in this too a gift of the Lord, because being sustained and accompanied, feeling the affection of others is a grace!
This is important in every stage of life: no one can live alone and without help; the human being is relational. And in this case I see, with pleasure, that all those who help and all those who are helped form one family, whose lifeblood is love.  Dear elderly brothers and sisters, the days sometimes seem long and empty, with difficulties, few engagements and few meetings; never feel down at heart: you are a wealth for society, even in suffering and sickness.  The Pope loves you and relies on all of you! May you feel beloved by God and know how to bring a ray of God’s love to this society of ours, often so individualistic and so efficiency-oriented. And God will always be with you and with all those who support you with their affection and their help.”

Flailing on the Operating Table?

Homily for the 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2013

“Woe is me, I am doomed.”  This seems to be the most common response of someone who has an authentic call from God to minister to his people.

And this might seem a bit strange, given that we know because of Christ that our God is a God of love and mercy and not of wrath of vengeance.  It would seem that those who would experience him most intimately would be comforted by his presence and set at ease by his love.  And yet it is interesting that in the inspired scriptures of the Church, those who encounter God most intimately so often were overcome by fear and the sense of being unworthy.  Moses was petrified when he saw the burning bush, Jeremiah felt he was too young, Isaiah as we hear today, did not feel worthy.  We could list a whole litany of other prophets and kings who trembled before the presence of God.  Some might say, “Oh, well that’s because the God of the Old Testament was severe and full of wrath.” but this is hardly borne out when we read the New Testament, is it?  Ss. Peter and Paul both reacted in the same way as the prophets before them when they were called by Christ: “Depart from me Lord, I am a sinful man.” St. Peter says.  Hardly the words of one who is confident or unafraid.  St. Paul’s encounter with Christ had left him blind and entirely disoriented.  In our second reading today, he reminds the Corinthians of his unworthiness and sinfulness, that he does not even consider himself fit to be called an apostle.

Does this mean, some might ask that we should start teaching our young people, and all Catholics for that matter, that they should be afraid of God?  Of course not.

But do we not have to somehow take account of this?  Can we really pretend that an experience of God should always be pleasant when it seems that for so many saints it really was not?

Now clearly many people have had incredibly pleasant encounters with God.  In fact, that is a huge understatement: the heights of joy and peace have been found in his presence by countless saints.  One only has to read the great mystics to know that intimacy with God is to be embraced by love himself, to be surrounded by love, to be filled with it – and that no greater joy can be found than this experience of God.  Indeed, that is what we all await in heaven, right?

But there is the rub – the heights of joy in God’s presence are experienced by saints.  Saints who are pure of heart and receptive to God’s grace, who are completely at home in his presence, whose wills are entirely aligned to God’s will.  Unfortunately, most of us don’t fall into that category.  And so our experience of being in God’s presence, of receiving his invitation to follow him, of growing in intimacy with him is not always easy.  Often, when we encounter God, we feel a kind of dividedness inside of us, in the will – a sense of friction, of being unsettled, of tension.  Sometimes, if we are clinging to sins or to worldly idols, God’s presence can even feel menacing, threatening.  Like a surgeon with a scalpel, or a dentist with a drill.  And we want to cringe, we want him to leave us alone.  Many times the experience of God drawing near to us downright uncomfortable.

As we enter into the season of Lent, these readings provide us with a valuable reflection.  They remind us that those whom God calls he also purifies, and that this work of purification and healing is often difficult.

Rather than resisting this redemptive work of God, like a patient flailing about on the operating table, or squirming on the dentist’s chair, lent invites us to enter into this penitential season with trust and courage.  The courage to stand before God.  And maybe we will tremble a bit – not because we don’t trust him but because we know how much work he has to do on us, we know how serious the illness is, how attached we are to idols that need to go.  If we find ourselves a bit anxious, a bit apprehensive about serious spiritual renewal, then our readings today remind us that we are in good company.  

But remember: Isaiah held still as the burning ember was touched to his mouth.  St. Peter did not jump out of the boat.  They knew that whatever they had to endure, whatever they would be asked to leave behind, whatever discipline they would need embrace – these things would be but light afflictions compared with the joy that awaits those who are united to God’s will and vessels of his love.

May we be given the same grace as we enter into this penitential season: the grace to be humble and courageous in placing our lives before the Lord.  He wishes to heal us, to purify us, and then to send us into the world to proclaim his love and mercy to all people.  May we not shrink back at his approach, turn away from his invitation, but instead even though our knees weaken a bit, though our palms begin to sweat – may we humbly place our lives before him this lent: through our reception of the sacrament of penance, and through our increased prayer, penance and almsgiving.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Loving in the Midst of Conflict

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2013

Most people will do a lot to avoid conflict.  I certainly don’t enjoy it – and I suspect if I were to go down the row in each pew very few of you would say you enjoy it.  The feeling in the pit of the stomach, the frustration, the anger that often results of the anxiety that dogs us.  No fun.

Yet most of us, I imagine, find ourselves in situations that are marked with conflict on a pretty regular basis.  Perhaps in our home – there are different times when we find ourselves at odds with our wife or husband and just can’t seem to resolve underlying issues.  It may not always be out in the open, but there is a frustration and a lack of harmony that has made what should be a life-giving relationship into an energy sapping relationship.  Or conflict with our children, who often at one time or another generally tend to decide that we are their enemies.  Or perhaps we encounter conflict with our parents or sisters and brothers or other extended family who are making choices or doing things that just seem to constantly antagonize.  So many people today are living in one of the many difficult situations brought about through a divorce, trying to navigate how to relate to a former spouse or a new step-parent or new step children or a former spouse or all of the other relationships that can be fraught with difficulty.  And of course there is often conflict that manifests itself in the workplace with co-workers or supervisors or employees.  And conflict often arises between neighbors and friends, within various community associations and, yes, even in the Church.

Our lives are incredibly social, and this matrix of social interaction that we find ourselves in the middle of exists in a fallen world, a world marked by limitations, and sin, and division.

When conflict gets especially strong, when it’s the middle of winter and everyone is grouchy, I imagine we have all hit the point when we just want to run away, to escape – when we feel like we just can’t handle the conflict any more.  That it is too much for us to take.

The readings today offer encouragement when we come to that precipice, to the brow of a hill, just as our Lord did in the Gospel we just heard – when it feels like those who are closest to us despise us or do not understand us.  Remember that Jesus was in his home town, with the people who he knew best – and these were the people who he loved, who he had grown up with.  Can you imagine the feeling in the pit of his stomach, the anxiety that he felt?

We should never forget that our Lord knew the feeling of rejection and conflict well – he knew it better than most of us.  His words, his teaching was more often than not met with resistance, with scorn and mockery or outright hatred.  His own disciples and family were often in conflict around him and with him.  He did not live a charmed life, a carefree life, surrounded only by those who agreed with him or did what he asked of them and tried to please him.  Instead, it seems that he sometimes even purposefully waded into social situations that he knew were bound to create conflict, he did not avoid social tension and awkwardness in the least – it seems that many times he almost sought it out.

I think two questions arise from his example and can be a great help and guide for us.  First, why did he do it? And secondly, how did he do it?

Why did he do it?  Why did Jesus submit to social conflict in the first place, we might ask.  Why didn’t he go and found a monastery with his disciples and make others come to him, preferably after climbing up a very steep mountain, so that only those who truly wanted to hear his teaching and follow his example would follow him.  Why did he instead choose to constantly place himself in the midst of detractors and antagonists?
Love, I think, is the ultimate answer.  Jesus shows us that if you refuse to enter into situations of conflict in this fallen world, you also refuse to enter situations that are most in need of love.

The cross is the clearest proclamation of this truth: where did Christ show us the greatest love?  In the final and greatest conflict of his life.  Christ manifests the greatness of his love precisely where it is needed the most: in places of conflict.  St. Paul understood this character of the love of Christ profoundly, as we hear in the well-known passage from 2nd Corinthians today.  The portrait of love that he paints is one of tireless endurance to the end, of sacrifice and generosity of heart – a love that is made to exist precisely in situations and relationships of conflict: where else would we need to be patient and kind, avoiding a quick temper or brooding over injury, bearing all things and enduring all things?  Certainly not in heaven!  Love only manifests itself according to these attributes in a fallen world, in a world of conflict and strife.  It is precisely in these moments, St. Paul knew from the experience of his own life which seems to have been one conflict following upon another, it is precisely in these conflicts that he knew the love of Christ could and should shine most clearly through him if he was open and working to be receptive to the Holy Spirit.

And that brings us to our second question.  Well, okay, we understand why it is important not to avoid conflict, because God’s love is needed there and we are called to be vessels of his love.  But how?  How do we not get beat down?  How do we not get drawn into the conflict ourselves?  It’s one thing to know what is needed, it is quite another to have the strength and the capacity to give it.  To love in the midst of conflict is perhaps the most daunting tasks that any Christian faces.

How much we all need to hear the words that Jeremiah speaks to us today: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.  Be not crushed on their account, as though I would leave you crushed before them; they will fight against you but not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.”

To love those who love you?  That doesn’t take much character – children love like that, St. Paul tells us, criminals love like that, Jesus tells us.  But to love those who curse you?  Those who malign you?  Those who want to kill you?  To love in the midst of conflict?  You can only do that when you know and experience the love of God – when you are rooted in him, when you carry his love within you.  I don’t know any other way.  That is why the martyrs have always been the greatest of Christian witnesses.  Those who saw their love in the midst of conflict and hatred could not help but sense that the martyrs were drawing upon a powerful source of love beyond themselves, a source of love that seemed inexhaustible.  And they were – they were drawing on the love of Christ.  That same inexhaustible source of love is given to us today – Christ does not give us a partial portion of his love, but all of it – as much as we want, as much as we are willing to receive.  May he help us to approach him with open hearts, hearts prepared and ready to be filled and then poured as we bring the love of Christ into the places of conflict in our world.