Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Ez 18:25-28; Phil 2:1-11; Mt 21:28-32

Last Monday morning I was watching the news on TV and there was a guest being interviewed; he was a marriage counselor. Some of his observations perked up my ears. He said that, on average, when a couple comes to see him for the first time they have been having problems in their marriage for six years. And in more than half the cases they are not really coming for marriage counseling; they are coming for pre-divorce counseling. He was asked what were some of the more difficult issues that people have to face. One of the first ones he mentioned was "forgiveness." He said, "Most people don’t know what it is." They either underestimate it or overestimate it. They underestimate it by thinking that it’s not really important. They overestimate it by making it into something that is almost humanly unreachable. Wow! I thought; many people don’t know what forgiveness is. That’s a crucial issue not only in religion but also in basic human relationships.

I know what he was talking about. Having been a spiritual director for over forty years, I’ve seen the same problem in lots of people—seminarians, sisters, priests and lay people. The biggest problem is that they overestimate forgiveness and make it into something that is almost humanly unreachable. And then they criticize and blame themselves because they can’t reach it. They think that forgiveness is to wipe the slate clean. The offense one suffered isn’t remembered anymore. All animosity is set aside and it’s like we are good friends again. Nonsense! In a human perspective forgiveness means that we no longer seek any retaliation either from ourselves or in general. I used to give the seminarians this example. You’ve had a longstanding disagreement with another student. He has said some things that really made you mad and embarrassed. But now you are trying to forgive him and put it behind you. But you keep having occasional remembrances and then traces of the old anger flares up. Have you truly forgiven him? Well, ask yourself this: if you were walking alongside a river and you noticed that particular individual struggling to swim and crying for help. You also see that there is a life preserver right beside you, would you throw it to him? If you can say, "Yes, I would," even though you don’t like him, then you have forgiven him. If you say to yourself, "No, let the him die," then you haven’t.

One of the problems is that people think they have to completely erase any bad thoughts from their memory, so that the whole unpleasant event is never thought of again. That doesn’t happen with human beings. Unpleasant events leave psychological scars that remain all our lives, just as some physical events leave bodily scars that remain all our lives. I have a scar on my leg that I got from some roughhousing we were doing in the boy scout cabin when I was in grade school. It was an accident that was mostly my fault. But every time I see that scar it takes me back to that episode in my life. The same is true of our psyches. When we have been deeply hurt, we get psychological "scars" (so to speak) that will stay with us all our lives. Years later when some random association brings that to memory, we can begin to feel the anger and animosity all over again. But that’s not a sign that we haven’t forgiven the other person; it just tells us what our psychological history has been.

The first reading we heard today from the prophet Ezekiel is an account of divine forgiveness. And in divine forgiveness everything is wiped clean. God holds nothing against us. Later in Jesus Christ that divine forgiveness is going to make things better than they were before. Human forgiveness is like divine forgiveness, but it doesn’t measure up to it fully. That’s why it’s always good to remember the life preserver story; it gives us a solid point of reference for measuring human forgiveness.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Is 55:6-9; Phil 1:20-27; Mt 20:1-16

There are some stories you hear or read about and remember all your life; they somehow always stay fresh. I have one of my own in mind right now. The story takes place in France in the 1890s and concerns a young man who was avidly studying to be a scientist at the University of Paris. He was lapping up every bit of knowledge he could get. One holiday season he boarded a train to go back to his family home for vacation. Looking for a compartment to sit in, he came upon one which was occupied only by an old man who was looking through some notes. The student went in and sat down; neither acknowledged the other. After some time the old man put his notes away and began to pray his rosary. This was too much for the student and he spoke up: "Surely you don’t believe in that superstition any more; science is showing that all such religious stuff is false." The old man looked at him quizzically and asked, "What is this science you are talking about?" And the student began to tell him about the rise of modern science, the experimental method, the use of mathematical calculations, and projections, and so on. The old man put his rosary away and listened intently. As the train began to slow down, the old man said, "This is my stop coming. If I give you my card, will you write to me more about this ‘science’ you speak of. " The student said he would gladly. He slipped the old man’s card into his pocket and jumped up to help the old man get his bag from the upper rack. He assisted him to the door and off the train. The old man thanked him and told him to remember to write him. The student went back very satisfied to his seat. After the train had left the station, he pulled out the old man’s card to see who he would be writing to. It said simply: Louis Pasteur, President of the French Academy of Science.

The young student was so sure he had everything in hand; he knew exactly where everything was going. The world was operating the way it should be. And then he met the old man. That ‘s a lot like the disgruntled workers in today’s gospel passage. They were pretty sure they had figured out that they would get a nice bonus. And then they were caught up short by the owner’s justice and generosity at the same time.

These are really stories about all of us and the common human temptation of thinking that we have got it all figured out. We like to do that so often with things religious. We want to think that we have a pretty good bead on God’s intentions. That’s why we surely don’t like to hear the first reading from Isaiah: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord." This has to be pretty disconcerting for anyone who takes religion as a part of daily life. You have to wonder how you can ever move forward.

Maybe it’s not about moving forward. There is a strain of Jewish spirituality that begins and ends with those famous words from the book of Job: "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." (1:21) In this spirituality you can’t know ever what God’s plans are, so there’s no use trying. All one can do is praise God’s name.

I think that was the attitude of Louis Pasteur. Certainly he was one of the greatest medical scientists of modern times—a pioneer in so many medical breakthroughs. No one was a stricter scientist than he was. He believed fully in science. And yet he left explicit instructions that he was to be buried with a rosary in his fingers. "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord."

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Sir 27:30-28:7; Rom 14:7-9; Mt 18:21-35

The themes of the first reading and the gospel are pretty clearly anger and forgiveness. And I don’t suppose we can ever reflect too much on those. The best book I ever read on anger and forgiveness is David Mace’s Love and Anger in Marriage (1982). It hooked me from the start: "The Blue Dolphin Restaurant in San Leandro, CA has been the scene of numerous memorable gatherings, but none perhaps so quite unforgettable as the wedding reception that took place in mid-June. As the 300 guests chatted happily among themselves they suddenly grew silent when the newly weds began arguing in loud voices. Dismay turned to disbelief when the groom grabbed the wedding cake and shoved it in his bride’s face. By the time a police squad had pulled up, guests were breaking chairs and smashing mirrors. It took half an hour for more than 30 police to get the crowd under control. By that time the newlyweds had left on their honeymoon." (P. 9) Mace, a family psychologist, then gives some of the basic themes he will develop in the book. The very first one stands out: "The state of marriage generates in normal people more anger than they are likely to experience in any other type of relationship in which they find themselves." (Chalk one up for celibacy.)

We need to do some reflection on anger because it has become a social problem on the national level. Perhaps it’s better to say anger, which has progressed to rage, is a national social problem. We read so often of incidents of road rage, parking lot rage, check-out line rage; it takes so little to set some people off, to send them into furious, unthinking behavior.

We, in religious communities, have our problems with anger as well. But we are usually down at the other end of the spectrum; our problem is with repressed anger. There was for so long a common teaching in the Catholic Church that all anger was sinful. So angry feelings, even legitimate angry feelings, got pushed under the skin and were never expressed. There they festered for years and years. I saw an example of that in my own community. About twenty years ago we had a workshop on community building. The workshop had the exact opposite result from what was originally intended. It didn’t build community; it showed what divided the community. The monks were to write in, anonymously, what bothered them about the monastic community. The results of this poll were made known to everyone. I was completely surprised to find out how many monks were still angry, some bitterly angry, over something that had happened thirty or forty years ago. That festering anger didn’t contribute anything positive to their monastic life.

We need to do a serious re-assessment of anger in Catholic spirituality. And we need to begin with a recognition that the feeling of anger is not bad or sinful in itself. Anger is one of our natural emotions, is part of our whole psychological make-up, is created by God and is therefore good in itself. Anger serves a very useful purpose in our lives. Anger alerts us to a danger that threatens us in some way. But that should be the lead-in to explore more carefully the nature of the danger. Is it real or mistaken? Is it a genuine threat of something else altogether? We don’t get much emotional education anywhere in our culture, and so we aren’t used to exploring our emotions and testing their truthfulness. We just let it race on toward guilt or rage.

We should appreciate anger. It serves a purpose in our lives. But we have to learn how to make a good and proper use of it.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Ez 33:7-9; Rom 13:8-10; Mt 18:15-20

Years ago there was a phrase that was often used in the diagnosis of alcoholism, "an elephant on the sofa." It referred to the strange scene of a family living room, which had an elephant lying on the sofa. The children would play around it each day, and bounce balls off of it, and the mother would regularly dust off the elephant and keep it clean. But nobody ever asked the obvious question: why in the world is there an elephant on our sofa in the living room? The elephant, of course, stands for the father of the family who is an alcoholic and is frequently passed out on the sofa. This little story dramatizes how hard it is for people to speak up about something that is harmful and painful and obviously known, but which some people don’t want to hear about or face up to. And that extends to many, many things beyond the diagnosis of alcoholism.

We, as members of religious communities should know all about the difficulties of standing up and saying something that some people will not like to hear. One incident stands out especially in my memory. One time in our community at St. Meinrad there was some issue (I don’t remember what the issue was; I just remember the dynamics of how it was handled). But the community was going to have to make a decision about it and there were lots of differing viewpoints, many directly opposed to other viewpoints. The Abbot knew this and decided to have an open session of the community. He appointed one of the monks to lead the meeting and neither he nor the prior would be present, so people could speak freely. We all gathered in one of the large classrooms for the meeting. The appointed leader got up and laid out the situation and the decision which needed to be made. Then he opened the floor for comments. He stood looking around the room for several minutes. No one raised their hand. Finally he said, "Well, we might as well close the meeting. Let’s all go over to the coffee room, where we can sit in our own little groups and talk about the issue." Which is precisely what we did.

It is not easy to speak up and say something that some others don’t want to hear or face up to. And yet that’s one of the main messages in today’s readings from Scripture. The passage from the prophet Ezekiel says, "I appointed you to be my spokesman. If you don’t deliver my message, you will be as responsible as the wrongdoer." And in the gospel passage Jesus says, "If your brother or sister sins against you, you need to go and confront them." You need to speak up and let them know what they are doing wrong. Anyone who finds themselves in a position of leadership knows the weight and the difficulty of this task. When I was in administrative positions in the seminary, I felt the weight of this often, and it’s not easy. You have to tell people things they don’t want to hear and you are never sure how they are going to react—angrily, remorsefully or denying everything and calling you a liar or worse.

The real issue here is, of course, saying something to someone we care about that their behavior is unhealthy or even dangerous to themselves or others. "You are drinking too much." "Your actions are becoming abusive to your wife, to your husband, to your children." "You need to spend more time and effort looking for a job." These things are never easy to say. But Jesus tells us that it’s the Christian thing to do. And even though the other person may ignore or even blame you, it’s still the right thing to do. All of us face times like this. Let’s use the rest of this mass to pray that we may have the courage to say the right thing at the right time.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Jesus' September Message

Each month, Anne, a lay apostle, receives a message from Jesus. This is the message for September. To read more about the locutions Anne receives from Jesus and His Blessed Mother click on this link: Direction For Our Times.

Dear apostles, it is with joy that I speak with you today. When I contemplate your fidelity to My plan for mercy, I feel joy. When I contemplate your fidelity to holiness, I feel joy. Do not pause in your commitment to becoming holier. This calm movement into the Spirit of gentleness and kindness should help you to view others with compassion, yes, but also yourself. Do you view yourself with compassion? Do you offer kindness and mercy toward yourself when you contemplate your condition? My friends, My dearest friends, be careful to view yourself as I view you. Be careful not to view yourself in harsh light that seeks to condemn. If you are tempted against mercy for yourself, then truly, you are tempted against truth. Because it is only with mercy and love that I greet your present condition and your attempts to advance in holiness. I am love. I could hardly ask you to love others and then withhold love from you. That would be a flawed plan, destined to fail. My plan is perfect. I give you a receptive heart, you receive My love in abundance, and then stand for Heaven to be a well on earth which both stores and distributes love. Beloved apostle, search your heart today. If you do not find mercy and compassion for yourself in your heart, come to Me at once and ask Me to give these things to you. My plan for you and for the world will not advance as quickly as necessary if you do not accept your present condition and understand My perfect love for you. Your potential for holiness has not yet been fully achieved, of course, and I want you to advance. And I ask that you do so in confidence, joy and hope. Rejoice. I am with you.