Readings: Zeph 2:3—3:12-13; 1 Cor 1:26-32; Mt 5:1-12
It seems that "being poor" is the theme that runs through all three of today’s readings. The prophet Zephaniah speaks to the "humble of the earth," "the remnant," those who have very little. Then Paul writes to the Corinthian community, calling them "not wise," "not powerful," "the lowly and despised of the world who count for nothing." And in the gospel passage Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount with the famous words, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." The theme of "being poor" appears in many guises through these three selections.
What exactly does "being poor" mean? How should we understand it today? In this country we have a standard economic indicator, the "poverty level," which is set each year by the United States Department of Health and Human Services according to personal income and the number of persons in the household. But that reduces "being poor" to a statistical measurement and that doesn’t satisfy most people. In this country people would rather go by the impression about the general living conditions that people reside in and the basic necessities of life they have available to them. By that indicator neither your monastery or mine would qualify as "being poor." We certainly aren’t "poor" compared to the inner city folks here in Indianapolis or those people who live in cabins in the Appalachian mountains, those groups who constitute many of the "poor" of our country. And yet even they would be considered well-off compared to the numerous homeless refugees in Sudan or those living in tent cities in Haiti. What does "being poor" really mean? And should we aspire to it? Maybe we could turn it into an inner attitude, with some meaning like "unattached to things." Then we could put more emphasis on the "poor in spirit." But that makes too sharp a division between body and soul, which never would have happened in the Hebrew or Aramaic languages that Jesus probably used. In addition, it is not entirely clear whether the phrase "poor in spirit" should be taken in a positive or negative sense. In a positive sense it would indicate a good condition of life, something to be striven for. Taken negatively, it could indicate a downtrodden and depressed situation which a person can’t escape from and from which one could only be redeemed through the mercy of God. Hmmm. We haven’t come very far in trying to answer our question: what exactly does "being poor" mean?
Perhaps that’s precisely the point of Jesus’ words. They are like a rabbinic teaching lesson—where the whole goal is to get the listener involved and engaged in the process of interpretation. A rabbinic teacher will not give a straight and direct answer to any question. Rather he will quote one rabbinic authority, and then another, and then another, and then another. Sometimes the quotations directly contradict each other. We would say, "Wait a minute! That’s not a very clear answer." But the rabbinic teacher won’t budge. He doesn’t want to give you the answer. For someone who sees things in black and white, this is not very satisfying. But that’s the Rabbinic process of education. Religious education consists in more than just the transfer of information. The educational process consists in getting you to engage the material and come to your own answer after seriously considering and evaluating the available information and opinions.
So the best response we can make to hearing the words of the Beatitudes would be to seriously and deeply ask ourselves: what does "poor in spirit" really mean to me? Then, how do I see it reflected in my life? What does "to be meek" mean? In our general language and understanding meekness doesn’t usually count as a positive personal quality. And what about "to mourn?" How is that a part of my life? Such considerations are, I think, the kind of response that Jesus wanted his disciples to make, and he wants all of us to make. In fact, it might be worthwhile for all of us to consider making the Beatitudes the focus of our reflection and our lectio today.
Sunday, January 30, 2011
Readings: Zeph 2:3—3:12-13; 1 Cor 1:26-32; Mt 5:1-12
Sunday, January 23, 2011
Readings: Is 8:23-9:3; 1 Cor 1:10-17; Mt 4:12-17
The first reading from Isaiah gives us a prophecy that the lands of Zebulon and Naphtali (northern tribes of Israel) were punished by their enslavement under the kingdom of Assyria. But later they have been delivered, "they have seen a great light," and God has smashed the yoke that burdened them. This seems to be a clear reference to some definite historical events. The Assyrian king, Tiglath-pileser III, overran the northern sections of Israel around 733BC and his control over them lasted until his death six years later. A power struggle then ensued within the Assyrian kingdom and in the lull that followed Isaiah probably spoke his prophecy. But the lull was brief and five years later the entire northern kingdom of Israel was overthrown and disappeared forever.
What is especially interesting for our reflection is how in today’s gospel the evangelist Matthew has taken that prophecy of Isaiah and turned it into a foretelling of Christ. When Matthew uses this passage to describe the ministry and preaching of Jesus, he is asserting that Jesus is a great light to all the nations. This serves as a marvelous example of how the Catholic tradition has seen a close connection between the Old and New Testaments. Within the Old Testament are all these hints and suggestions that only find their fulfillment and answer in the New Testament (DV #16) The great light that shone on Zebulon and Naphtali was a harbinger of the still greater light that shone forth in Jesus Christ.
For that light of Christ to shine forth in our own time it needs to do so through intermediary channels: preaching, personal example, multiple media and the word of the Bible. Many years ago St. Jerome wrote that "Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ." (Commentary on Isaiah, ##1-2) What an ironic situation we find ourselves in right now. In the 1960s the Second Vatican Council threw the doors wide open and encouraged all Catholics to become familiar with the Bible, to study it, to read it for spiritual nourishment, to let it truly become a beacon of Christ for them. Alas, what has happened in the last forty-five years? Let me read you a short passage from a recent op-ed page in Commonweal magazine. The author, a priest who has taught at a Catholic college for many years, first describes his own pre-Vatican II religious training. Back then no one read the Bible directly either at home or at school. But they did learn a lot of its content from the Bible History and Salvation History books they studied. They knew and could talk about the great events recounted in the Bible. Then he writes: "The college students I teach today are no less bright than we were, but they are largely ignorant of Scripture. At the beginning of a recent semester, a student told me there were five gospels, though he couldn’t name one of them. When I asked one of my classes what happened at Cana, only two of the twenty-four students had ever heard of the story—and even those two couldn’t say anything about it." (Jan. 14, 2011, p. 31) His conclusion laments that we have largely squandered a great opportunity to let the light of Christ shine forth.
The problem of scriptural ignorance on the part of Catholics today results from many issues. For one thing, it is not easy for the average person to read and understand the various books of the Bible. Last Thursday, as I was preparing for mass in the Health Care Center, several of the residents were sitting in the room early, waiting for mass to begin. They were talking about the Bible. One of the ladies said, "Thirty years ago someone gave me a Bible. I read a little of it, but couldn’t understand anything. So I put it away." Reading the bible is a skill that needs to be learned and nurtured.
This is not going to be an easy challenge for the Church to tackle, but it’s a necessary one. I would suggest that each of us might consider doing our part. Perhaps as a different kind of Lenten resolution this year, we might think about helping someone else come to a better appreciation of the Bible....and so let the light of Christ shine forth.
Saturday, January 22, 2011
Readings Isaiah 57:15-19
Today is the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision to legalize abortion.
Jesus, You are the Word of Life,
The Alpha and Omega,
The Source of all life.
Let us Pray: Creator of all Life
You made us in your image and we have desecrated the dignity of so many lives.
Renew in our days, the awe of the sanctity of life. Give us hearts that reach out to others without condemnation but your compassion. We ask this through Jesus the merciful one.
38 years of legalized abortion—an industry that permeates so many lives. We have no clue how it saturates the thinking of our country. Does anything have worth—that does not benefit us? Are we willing to be inconvenienced? Is pleasure the highest ranking value in our country?
Our readings today speak of God extending forgiveness to the world in the midst of drowning in fear and sin. We as religious sisters have an incredible opportunity to be sources of forgiveness in the world. We also have the opportunity to model self-sacrifice and right judgment.
We can also be caught up in fear and apathy. How is God using you to be a light in the world? Today—extend peace to yourself, each other and to the world—ever so quietly.
For our country—that we willing look at the true nature of the evil of abortion,
We pray to the Lord...
For all who work with women in crisis pregnancies. We pray to the Lord...
For all who have suffered with the sin of abortion—that they may find the forgiveness and healing they seek. We pray to the Lord...
For all aborted babies—that their deaths bring an end to this horrible industry. We pray to the Lord...
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
My experience at the soup kitchen this time was similar to last time in many ways. This time I went with Lynn and Sara. While there I worked at the drink station serving apple juice and a variety of other drinks to the people coming in. If there was anything that was similar to last time it would be the number of people who came in there. I was absolutely amazed at how many people were there. If I were to guess I would say most were men, although I did see a couple women every now and then. I will tell you this much I had never seen people as hungry as they were. While working at the drink station, I noticed some people come by and pick up two or three drinks. That really got me wondering how many times they ate a week compared to us. Another thing I noticed is how messy a job like this could get. Altogether I would say Lynn, Sara and I spilled drinks about ten times. I would say things ended up getting at least a bit messy. In my opinion, it really does not matter how messy you get or how messy things get. What matters in the end is the satisfaction you know you did a good job, helped others, and most of all followed your vocation of knowing, loving and serving God.
This was my second time going to the Soup Kitchen. This time there wasn’t as many people volunteering like last time but it was still fun. One thing I noticed this time was that I saw more women than last time. I noticed that there were a few more different faces than last time. I was in charge of the Italian salad and fruit salad.
One thing I just love to see are the smiling faces of the people I serve at the soup kitchen. It just gives me this good feeling. When leaving the soup kitchen I have a good feeling inside that I have done something good for a person in need.
My second trip to the soup kitchen was similar to my first trip. The main difference was that there were more people than the first time I went. I think there were more people because it was in the winter, and they needed more food. Most of the people I saw there were the same as I saw the first time. The message I got from going the second time was no different than the one I got the first time. The message I received was how lucky I am to have a house, food, and all of the other things I have.
Sunday, January 16, 2011
Readings: Is 49:3-6; 1 Cor 1:1-3; Jn 1:29-34
We have begun a season of Ordinary Time, which we will be with for the next seven Sundays. Then will come the special season of Lent. The Church’s Liturgical Year is divided into Festal seasons, Ordinary Time, and Saints’ feasts. The Festal seasons, like Christmas and Easter, celebrate the great Mysteries of Christ’s life. Ordinary Time is dedicated to applying the significance and import of those mysteries to our own daily lives. The Saints feasts are scattered among both the festal and ordinary seasons as examples of people who have applied the Christian mysteries in their lives.
By their very nature the seasons of Ordinary Time turn around the practical, daily aspects of living the Christian faith. I must admit that I personally like those spiritual writers who have that gift for seeing the Holy, the Mystery in ordinary situations of life. They have the special ability of seeing God’s grace at work in not just the ordinary, but sometimes the less pleasing aspects of life. I mentioned a couple of homilies ago that I’m currently reading Fr. Matthew Kelty’s Gethsemani Homilies. Fr. Kelty clearly possesses a great love for the monastic life, while at the same time acknowledging its numerous foibles. He has a gift for spotting the sacred in the ordinary. Listen to a few gems: "Once after supper at recreation several years ago I said to gruff, old Fr. Weyland, ‘It’s a lovely day.’ He growled back at me, ‘Every day is lovely.’ He might be right. All that comes from God is lovely, and we are thankful for all." (p. 21) "When we think thoughts of mercy, or pardon and forgiveness, we live in a climate of love by choice. As Christians we take pains to express this any way we can. The healing of a wound is not the mere application of a dressing or the taking of a few pills. Every aspect of body and soul is involved." (p. 17) "Dorothy Day saw as much of the seamy side of life as many and far more than most. She asked for only two words on her tombstone: Deo Gratias. Thanks be to God." (p. 22) But I really like to go back to Fr. Kelty’s question: Do we make a decision to live in a "climate of love by choice?" That means choosing to think thoughts of mercy, pardon and forgiveness. Every time that we do is an occasion for grasping the holy in the ordinary.
When I think about the holy in the ordinary, I’m reminded of an episode that happened about twenty years ago back at my monastery. One of the main switchboard operators for the monastery was a young woman, a wife and mother of two. By a series of unusual circumstances I wound up being the one who would proofread this novel she was trying to write. She would send me a chapter; I would proof it; then go down to the main switchboard when she was working and go through my suggested revisions. As things turned out, she eventually gave up on writing the novel. (It was a steamy women’s romance story, and she was becoming afraid that her eleven year old daughter might find it sometime.) But one time we were just talking about a variety of things and she began telling me about this project she and a cousin of hers were undertaking, trying to reconstruct a family tree. She said that from time to time as she was working on this, she would have a sudden remembrance of a passage in one of the gospels that reflected what she was doing. I became intrigued as I listened, and finally I said, "Joanie, I think you can get that published as an article." It took some convincing (and the offer of my ghostwriting it with her), but she got it done and published. It was a marvelous melding of a practical, everyday action (researching a family tree) with a particular slant of how Jesus lives in our memories. It was a true example of the holy in the ordinary. (I’ll put a copy of her article in the back after mass.)
The challenge for each of us in this season of Ordinary Time is to discover "the holy in the ordinary" in our lives. It’s to ask ourselves every day if this day is one in which I live "in a climate of love by choice?" Today is a good day to begin.
Sunday, January 9, 2011
Readings: Is 42:1-7; Acts 10:34-38; Matt 3:13-17
There is no doubt that the Second Vatican Council back in the 1960s was a significant turning point and advancement for Catholic teaching and life. So many things changed as a result of that grand council. For example, our whole understanding of the sacrament of Baptism, which really originated with the baptism of Jesus which we celebrate today, was immeasurably broadened from the recent past understandings. One of the most significant results flowing from that broadening was a changed relationship in the attitude of the Catholic Church towards other Christian churches. As many of you will remember, there had been nothing but feelings of antagonism between the Catholic Church and the churches which split from it in the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Indeed, in the history of the United States there had been a great deal of hostility between Catholics and other Christians. It was one of the expressed concerns of Pope John XXIII to change that situation. The Council set about doing just that.
I’d like to read you one of the most relevant passages from the Council’s document on Ecumenism:
"For all those who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect. The differences that exist in varying degrees between them and the Catholic Church—whether in doctrine and sometimes in discipline, or concerning the structure of the Church—do indeed create many obstacles, sometimes serious ones, to full ecclesiastical communion. The ecumenical movement is striving to overcome these obstacles. But even in spite of them it remains true that all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ's body(5) and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers and sisters by the members of the Catholic Church.(6)" (UR #3, 22)
There’s no doubt that the Church Fathers and especially Pope John XXIII wanted a new relationship to emerge between Catholics and members of other Christian churches, a relationship of mutual appreciation and cooperation. By and large a lot of that has occurred in the last forty plus years. Still it takes a long time for a four hundred year old attitude to completely change, and we are still "in the process" with a lot of work remaining. Through it all one point that we must continually go back to and remind ourselves is that we have all been justified by faith and Baptism into Christ’s body. We still need a lot of prayer and effort in this area, and it’s an important one.
To help change that new attitude into reality, the Church subsequently made some major changes in the area of sacramental sharing with members of other Christian communities. Those were published in the Church’s Ecumenical Directory (1993). Here’s one directive that very few Catholics in the pew know about (or even a lot of priests):
"In certain circumstances access to these sacraments (Eucharist, reconciliation and anointing) may be permitted or even recommended for Christians of other Churches and ecclesial communities.(#129 - 1993)."
Some of those pre-eminent circumstances are explicitly ecumenical gatherings. You have a number of those here at Our Lady of Grace in your Oblate program, in the Women Touched by Grace programs, as well as many others. These are all opportunities where we can profess the common baptism in Christ which joins us together. That’s one of the things we celebrate this feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
Sunday, January 2, 2011
Readings: Is 60:1-6; Eph 3:2-6; Mt 2:1-12
The feast of Epiphany is the same feast as Christmas. Christmas originated in the Western Latin-speaking half of the Roman Empire in the fourth century; Epiphany arose around the same time in the Eastern Greek-speaking half of the empire. But they celebrate the same event. Later church calendars included both of them because they stressed different aspects of the one event. Christmas accents the birth of Jesus Christ according to the flesh; while Epiphany proclaims the manifestation of God’s salvation to all the nations. They are one and the same event.
Epiphany often implies the revelation of something previously unknown. But that doesn’t always hold true. Sometimes Epiphany involves seeing a deeper level of truth to something that is already known. It can be an epiphany when something or someone that you have long taken for granted is now, for whatever the cause, seen as very special and precious. That harks back to what I mentioned yesterday—the value of deep reflection in our lives. Deep reflection can help us to appreciate real worth in something or someone that previously we took for granted. Epiphany can be either "seeing something totally new" or "re-valuing something already known."
I came across an example of the latter type in a book that I’m currently reading. It’s Pope Benedict XVI’s Light of the World: the Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times—his interview with German news reporter Peter Seewald. It’s really a rather remarkable book, the first time a Catholic Pope has given an off-the-cuff interview to a news reporter. You have probably seen some mention of it in the news media, especially his controversial remarks on the use of condoms as a lesser evil. On the whole his comments on many topics were far more liberal than most people would have expected. Anyway. One point that really got me thinking were his comments about the notion of "progress." He says that we haven’t adequately explored the morality of progress. The Western world has adopted the idea of progress as an almost absolute norm. Everything has to be better this year than last year in every way. Pope Benedict takes issue with that. He says: "A major examination of conscience should begin today (about the notion of progress). What really is progress? Is it progress if I can destroy (something or someone)? Is it progress if I myself can make, select and dispose of human beings? How can progress be achieved ethically and humanely? .... This (progress) sort of thinking results in the claim that science is indivisible. This means that whatever one can do one must be allowed to do. Anything else would be contrary to freedom. Is that true? I think it is not true." (p. 44) The key idea here is that progress does not always mean doing more. Sometimes it can also mean "re-valuing something already known."
The book covers all sorts of topics, some of which are very surprising. You just don’t think often of a pope dealing with issues like the crisis of world environment or the problem of total human population. But the Holy Father realizes that we can’t keep expanding in population numbers indefinitely; there simply aren’t enough resources on earth. In many areas the human population is going to be pushed to re-valuing, downsizing and appreciating anew.
That is also something we might remember as we look forward to our New Year’s resolutions. More doesn’t always mean better. To pray better may actually mean to pray less (in terms of amount) but with more attention. There are many ways in which Epiphany calls us to the process of re-valuing: re-valuing our relationships, re-valuing our goals in life, re-valuing our sense of self-identity. And that might be the greatest lesson of all of this feast.
Saturday, January 1, 2011
My friends, do you hear My voice? Can you feel My presence? I want to assure you that I am present. I desire to assure you of this so that you can be confident about the plan I have chosen for your life. I know that you feel temptations against the plan I have arranged for you. Perhaps not today, but on other days, or perhaps you experience this temptation every day. Perhaps you are suffering and you wonder why I allow this for you given that you feel you would be more productive without the crosses in your life. Consider for a moment what would have happened if I had rejected the cross and went on to preach. What would have remained after My life? Consider the absence of the Passion in the faith life that exists today. How can we preach the Gospel if we are unwilling to accept the crosses which inevitably accompany it? No, dearest friends. In order to accurately represent the Kingdom of God to others, we have to be willing to sacrifice, even to death in some cases. The glory of your work is seen in the souls of those whom you have touched directly or those who have been touched by others because you have agreed to My plan. My plan for you will bring the greatest benefit to those suffering loneliness and separation from joy. Such sadness! If you are serving Me, I thank you. If you are considering service to Me, I need you. If you are suffering great crosses because of your commitment to heaven, I rejoice in you. In all cases, I am with you. I urge you to believe this and live this truth. When you are finished with your time on earth you will gaze at My kingdom and view the benefits that you brought to it through your service. Life is not easy for any person and temptations come to all. Be assured that you can use My strength when you feel weak. You will not always feel conviction but you must live conviction. I will ignite fires of love through you if you do this for Me. Do not be afraid of your human struggle because it is through this struggle that others see the force of the One who works through you.
Readings: Num 6:22-27; Gal 4:4-7; Lk 2:16-21
The gospels don’t give us a great deal of information about Mary, the mother of Jesus. However, the glimpses that they do give us can have great value. One passage about Mary that I have always personally liked very much was in today’s gospel selection: "Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart." There must have been many, many things about her son that led her to think deeply about who he was and what he was about. Mary presents to us a model of a deep, spiritually reflective person.
The Western European tradition all the way back to the ancient Greeks held the practice of reflective thinking in high esteem. The philosopher Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." After Socrates, Plato and Aristotle both considered metaphysics to be the highest of human activities. By reflective thinking they meant the mental effort to discern the exact causes of anything that happens, to see the relationships between things, to explore the effects of human actions and through all these kinds of examinations to understand the deeper meanings of things, people and events. And that’s what Mary did. She kept all the events of Jesus’ life, ministry and teaching in her heart and reflected upon them. Rightly does the Church call her "the first follower of Christ," and in this regard "the Mother of all the Church in the order of grace." (L.G. #61) It’s also why Mary is such an appropriate model for monastic men and women.
Deep reflection, Mary and monasticism go together. I think that’s one reason there’s so often a special devotion to Mary among monastic men and women and why there are so many Marian shrines at monasteries. I came across that in an unusual place the other day. I’m currently in the process of reviewing a book for the American Benedictine Review. The book is Gethsemani Homilies by Fr. Matthew Kelty, a monk of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. In addition to the homilies there’s an extended question and answer interview with Fr. Matthew by the editor of the collection. Fr. Matthew was first ordained in 1946 as a Divine Word priest and spent fifteen years in missionary work, mainly in New Guinea, before joining the Cistercians. In the interview Fr. Matthew talks about the monastic life being so conducive to thinking deeply with its times of quiet and solitude. That’s something his active life as a missionary did not give him—time to reflect deeply. His life at Gethsemani did give him that opportunity that he so greatly desired.
Some of Fr. Matthew’s most interesting comments concerned vocations. (Fr. Matthew was 93 years old when he gave the interview.) In his view vocations to the monastic life have declined because more and more young people have never developed the capacity to think deeply. Their imaginations are overwhelmed by constant media input and output. "They get constant input....more and more of it from dawn to dusk. There is no silence, no time to ponder or reflect on anything and in that context religion dies." (p.xxxv) When you think about teenagers sending hundreds of text messages a day and receiving just as many----to say nothing of time spent on the phone, using computers, watching TV, listening to their iPods----you begin to understand why the reflectiveness necessary for this way of life is something they really have no experience of.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, remains a standard of holy, prayerful reflective thought. She should be that kind of an example for us. Let us celebrate her for that today.