Readings: Ex 17:3-7; Rom 5:1-8; Jn 4:5-42 The story of the Samaritan woman is one of the first classic "conversion stories" of the New Testament. This woman with a sinful past hears the word of Jesus, takes it to heart and becomes one of his followers. She also becomes one of his first apostles, telling of him to her Samaritan townspeople. She begins what will become a classic pattern in Christian history: a staunch sinner who has a deep conversion of heart and becomes an ardent follower of the Christian way. We can think of St. Paul and also of St. Augustine, famous because he wrote about his own struggles and conversion so powerfully in his Confessions. In our own time we can recall Dorothy Day and all that she subsequently accomplished in the Catholic Worker movement. Those are well-known examples. But it’s good for us to remember that there are lots more that very few people know about. Those stories of deep personal conversion are sitting in church pews every Sunday in just about every Catholic Church. Let me tell you about one example that moved me very deeply. One Sunday, when I was at Holy Rosary parish in Nashville, TN, after the 10:30am mass a young woman with a baby in her arms came up and asked if she could see me sometime. I said "Certainly" and we set a meeting time. At that meeting she told me her story. When she was sixteen in high school she became pregnant; then both she and her seventeen-year old boyfriend dropped out of high school and began living together. They lived in squalid conditions and both of them continued to drink and use drugs. One evening about a year later she and her boyfriend were having a party with some friends; a lot of drinking and drug use was going on. At one point the baby began to cry in the next room. She went in to see the baby, but inside the room she just crumpled to the floor in her dazed condition. She lay there in half-consciousness while the baby continued to cry. Then the thought appeared and kept flowing through her mind over and over: "If my baby was really hurt, I couldn’t do a thing to help him." Later, when she came to her senses, she promised herself that she would never use drugs again, drink or smoke. Her boyfriend said OK, but he wasn’t going to stop. So she moved out and found a place to live; got a job, and began making a life for her baby. She decided that she needed some religion for support. Her own parents didn’t practice any religion, so she started visiting various churches to find one that she felt comfortable in. She liked it best in the Catholic Church and that brought her to me. In time I gave her instructions and baptized her and her baby in the Catholic faith. She became a regular member of Holy Rosary parish. She’s known to very few, but a dramatic conversion story nonetheless. It’s good for those of us who don’t go through such a dramatic conversion to remember that they are all around and among us. That should help all of us to have a deeper appreciation of human weakness and failing, of unknown strength that is discovered, of the grace of God still acting very strongly in our world. Where did that thought come from when the young woman was lying on the floor in a drunken and drugged state? It’s the same grace of God that the Samaritan woman heard. It’s that grace of God that the season of Lent asks us to sharpen our awareness towards. The story of the Samaritan woman takes us to the heart of the Christian gospel: the grace of God changing a human heart. p.s. Six or seven years after I left Holy Rosary parish, I returned for a visit. I decided to call the young woman and see how she was doing. Quite nicely. She had gotten her boyfriend to give up drugs. He got a job and they got married. They had a second baby. Like the Samaritan woman, she too had become an apostle.
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Readings: Gen 12:1-4; 2 Tim 1:8-10; Mt 17:1-9
One day last week I was over at the Hermitage and got on the elevator with one of the kitchen workers. She was irate. What set her off was a billboard she had seen on I-465 as she was coming to work. The billboard read: "You can be good without God." To her that was scandalous and she believed the billboard should be taken down as soon as possible by any means possible. I just listened as she ranted on. I didn’t dare tell her: that’s what we believe as Catholics. And we do. Of course, we would want to put up a billboard right next to the offensive one which would read: "But you can be better with God." The Catholic Christian tradition has always believed that there is a natural law and a natural law morality. One can be good by following the dictates of one’s conscience without explicitly believing that there is a God. Vatican II reaffirmed that point in its Constitution on the Church: "Nor does divine providence deny the helps necessary to salvation for those....who have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God but who strive to lead a good life." (#16) But I doubt any of that would have made any difference to the irate kitchen worker.
This little episode serves to remind us that "faith" is "the effort to seek the deeper meaning." The very act of faith says there is a deeper dimension to the human experience. There are lots of ways to assert and affirm this. One of my favorites is a small piece of literature, a short story by the Russian writer, Anton Chekhov, entitled "The Bet." This little story tells of two young Russian aristocrats in the late 1800s who get engaged in an argument during a drinking party about being a hermit. Eventually they bet a million dollars that the one who claimed he could live as a hermit would do so for twenty years without having any contact with another human being. In their drunken stupor they outline all the determinants of the bet—the little hut the man is to live in, how he is to be fed, how he can only communicate by letter with the other young man, and so on. And so he begins. The majority of the short story is about what he reads each year, the things he does. As the twenty years are about to end, the young man outside has become panicky. Through the years he has lost a lot of his money on bad business deals and gambling. What he has left will have to be given to the man who has succeeded in living in isolation for twenty years. Finally he determines to kill to kill the hermit who has lost lots of weight during the twenty years of isolation. As he enters the little cottage to kill him, he sees that the hermit has his head down on his desk and is sleeping. As he is about to smother him with a pillow, he notices that the hermit has been writing a letter. He picks it up to read it. The letter tells his friend that in the years he has been enclosed, he has been able to see through to the deeper reality of things and what really matters in life. Money, luxury, fame no longer mean anything to him. Therefore, five minutes before the bet is to end, he will voluntarily leave the room and so forfeit his right to win the bet. The man who was going to smother him walks out of the cottage stunned. The next day the hermit leaves the room five minutes before noon, walks out the front gate and is never seen again.
This story makes the point that "deep insight" requires quiet, contemplation and solitude. That’s exactly what the season of Lent asks us to pursue. We don’t have years of quiet and solitude to pursue the deep thinking that the season asks us to do. We have to carve it out of busy and often rushed lives. That’s one of the greatest challenges of the season of Lent, finding time to slow down, calm one’s thoughts and feelings, and explore the issue of values—what really matters in our lives. Let’s make a renewed effort this week.
Sunday, March 13, 2011
Readings: Gen 2:7-9, 3:1-7; Rom 5:12-17; Matt 4:1-11
The readings today surely take us into the dark side of human history. The Genesis reading about Adam and Eve recounts the story of the very first transgression against God, the first sin. Paul’s Letter to the Romans describes the history of sin, how its effects are passed on from generation to generation. Finally, the temptation story of Jesus serves as a prototype of how every human being has to struggle with temptation in one way or another. Three different subjects: the first sin, the history of sin, the lure of temptations—any of them would be a fitting topic for a homily on this First Sunday of Lent.
Today I’d like to reflect on the second topic, the history of sin. I suppose that choice is greatly influenced by what I’ve been listening to lately. When I drive by myself in the car, I’ve been listening to a program from the Teaching Company: The United States and the Middle East, 1914-9/11. It’s quite enlightening, but also very discouraging. From the First World War onwards Western nations just made mistake after mistake in dealing with the Arab nations. Those mistakes had a cumulative effect. Every time a new leader came along with the best of intentions, he ran right into those amassed mistakes of the past. Soon he compounded them by making more political mistakes. This is a mess that there just doesn’t seem to be anyway out of. That’s much the same as the history of sin. It tends to have a cumulative effect.
Sins pile up and each subsequent generation faces more problems and challenges in dealing with them. There comes a point where one can see and believe that only by God’s grace and initiative can any way be found out of the mess. But we have to pray for it. That’s why I so love the words of the Preface of the Second Eucharistic Prayer of Reconciliation: "Your Spirit can change our hearts: so that enemies begin to speak to one another, those who were estranged join hands in friendship, and nations seek the way of peace together. It is your Spirit at work when understanding puts an end to strife, when hatred is quenched by mercy, and revenge gives way to forgiveness." We need to pray for it.
The history of sin needs to be faced in lives and in ministry. I suppose that one of the places you see it so often is in individual family histories. You meet that a lot when you work in parish ministry. One example I met when I was at St. Ann’s parish in Nashville, TN. Through an unusual series of events I came in contact with two women at a funeral service in a mortuary. Afterwards they asked me what parish I was from. I told them, "St. Ann’s." "Oh," they said, "we live right across the street from you." I looked at them and said, "I don’t think I’ve ever seen you before." They explained to me that they don’t attend St. Ann’s; they wouldn’t set foot inside the church; they attend the cathedral parish four miles away downtown. This all stemmed from one of their grandfathers who got into a big argument with the St. Ann’s pastor at that time. That grandfather swore he would never set foot in St. Ann’s parish again. That attitude had just been passed on from one generation after another. Nobody in the family today even knew what the original argument was all about.
The insidious aspect to our own history of sin is that often we have lived with it for so long that we are completely comfortable with it. That makes really hard to identify in ourselves. Like the two ladies I just mentioned. Whenever they looked out their front window and saw St. Ann’s church, they felt anger and revulsion. Neither of them knew why. Even worse, neither of them bothered to ask why. Lent is the time when we need to give some attention to identifying our own history of sin. When we hear those words of the Eucharistic Prayer, "It is your Spirit at work when understanding puts an end to strife, when hatred is quenched by mercy, and revenge gives way to forgiveness," it’s so easy to think of world events. But sometimes the strife, the hatred, the revenge....is in our own hearts. We have to look deeply into our own hearts, and we have to pray earnestly for the help of God’s Spirit.
Saturday, March 12, 2011
This trip to the soup kitchen had a few significant differences from the first. In this visit, I didn’t have to worry as much about serving the food, so the people there could easily interact with me. And I was taken aback by how courteous and polite those people were. Sure, there was one fight, but it soon dissolved and everyone around didn’t try to keep the fight going. In fact, one man actually came up to me and said, “It’s terrible to see grown men act like children.” I thought it was stunning to see some of the optimism and maturity that these people put forth. Being out in the world, alone and cold, can do terrible things to a person. But these people overcame their difficulties and really showed that they were respectable, thoughtful people. It was a showcase of human understanding that I would have never thought would have been there in that room.
My trip to the soup kitchen was very similar to the previous time. Once again there were people standing there when we arrived and once again I was upset by the number of people in Indiana who are hungry. I think the number of people I served increased since last time I was there. I was upset to see two people fighting over a bowl of soup. But I went there to serve the hungry and that’s what I did. I opened and poured bottles of juice. I also put crackers and some sort of chicken casserole into a bowl. Unfortunately, we ran out of crackers because someone stole a whole box. Someone else stole the butter and sugar. At the end of the day it was sad to see how desperate some people can be when they are hungry. I guess all we can do is pray for them to find work and be well fed, because we all know that God will take care of his people. However, I had as much fun this time as I did last time. I thoroughly enjoyed helping people and seeing their face light up when I gave them a friendly smile and a kind word.
Thursday, March 10, 2011
I was blessed to have my brother, Bishop Paul Etienne, spend two hours with me at my school, Holy Name. The 5th graders did an excellent job interviewing Bishop Paul. The following link will take you to the interview: An Interview with a Bishop.
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
What to do? What to do? How much time have you spent on what you should "GIVE UP" for Lent? Every year I agonize over my "Bona Opera" my good works. As a Benedictine Sister I'm required to complete my Bona Opera and turn it in to my prioress so she can give me her blessing for my good works during Lent.
The following is from the Rule of St. Benedict:
Rule of St. Benedict, ch. 49
At all times the lifestyle of a monk should have a Lenten quality. However, because few have that kind of strength, we urge them to guard their lives with all purity during these Lenten days. All should work together at effacing during this holy season the negligences of other times. The proper way to do this is to restrain ourselves from all evil habits and to devote ourselves to tearful prayer, reading, compunction of heart and asceticism. Therefore in these days, we should increase the regular measure of our service in the form of special prayers and abstinence from food and drink. In this way each one, of his own free will with the joy of the Holy Spirit, can offer God something beyond what is imposed on him. Let him deny his body some food, some drink, some sleep, some chatter, some joking and let him await Holy Easter with the joy of spiritual desire. Yet, let each one propose to his abbot what he wishes to offer (to God) so that it is done with his blessing and approval. For whatever is done without the permission of the spiritual father will be counted as presumption and vainglory, not reward. Therefore, everything is to be done with the abbot’s approval.
St. Benedict sure was wise...I guess that's why God called him to start the Benedictine way of life over 1500 years ago! Even though I agonize over my Lenten Practices...I take comfort in knowing that my Prioress is praying for me and gives me her blessing.
I am "giving up" some things...it just wouldn't be Lent for me if I didn't...but more importantly I decided that I am going to be more vigilant with the life that I am already living. Prayer is cental in the life of a Benedictine. If I'm not careful though, I can become stagnant in my everyday prayer life. I'm going to strive during these next 40 days to stay focused when I pray the Rosary, the Divine Office, the Divine Mercy Chaplet and when I spend time with my students in Adoration every Thursday.
I am fasting from sweets and bread...except for the bread of Christ which I receive at the Eucharist. But I'm also going to work hard to fast from idle gossip and laziness. I want to fast from things or behaviors that draw my attention away from Christ.
Because I promised to live a life of poverty, I really don't have money to donate to organizations in need. But I can give more of myself to those in need. One of my 6th grade students told me that during Lent she is going to put her needs last and the needs of others first. What a great practice! We can all give a smile, a high five, a hug, a warm welcome, a helping hand.
During this time of Lent we have 40 days to prepare our hearts and lives for the great miracle of Easter. Yes, today begins a time of fast...but it prepares us for the great feast of Easter! Let's pray for one another that our intentions and practices are pleasing to Jesus...who loves us so much and gladly sacrificed His life for us.
Sunday, March 6, 2011
Readings: Deut 11:18-32; Rom 3:21-28; Mt 7:21-27
The passage from Deuteronomy, which we just heard, is one of the most famous in Jewish life and spirituality, especially these words: "Take these words of mine into your heart and soul. Bind them at your wrist as a sign, and let them be a pendant on your forehead." These words led to some of the most recognizable features of Jewish life through the centuries—the wearing of little leather containers (Teffalin) attached to the wrist and forehead of observant Jews when they pray. The leather pouches each held a little piece of parchment on which was written part of this passage from Deuteronomy. (I have a set, from the times when I was teaching the "Introduction to Judaism course, but unfortunately they are still down in my room at St. Meinrad.) Along with the prayer shawl (Tallit) and its tassels (Tzitzit), which corresponds to another passage in the book of Numbers (15:37-40), the Teffalin were to be continual daily reminders to the Jews of their unique covenant with the Lord God—daily reminders. The same function was served by the small container (Mezuzah) placed on the door frame of the main entry to the house. It also has a small piece of parchment with an inscription inside, "The Lord Our God is One." The name of God, Shaddai, is written on the outside. Jews would touch these each time they entered or left their homes. (I have several of these too, but they also are down at St. Meinrad.) The skullcap (Kippah) is also a reminder of their special covenant with God.
The early Christians, spiritual descendants of the Jews, did the same thing, although with other objects, symbols and rituals. In place of the Mezuzah they would often inscribe a Christian symbol on their door frames—an anchor (a reference to Heb. 6:19 where Jesus is described as a sure anchor of the soul), a fish (the Greek letters of the word for fish (ichthus) form an acronym which in Greek means "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior), a Chi-Rho, which is a combination of the first two letters of "Christos." These served both as identification signs for Christian travelers passing through the city as well as reminders to the home owners about the basis of their Christian faith. Inside an early Christian home would frequently be found a "prayer corner," a specially designated place to pray. They took that practice from the religious culture of the Romans. Passing that "prayer spot" several times a day would be a reminder of the need for daily personal prayer in the life of the believer; often they would stop and pray there. The Byzantine Christian tradition has continued this practice through the centuries up to today. Frequently in Byzantine homes you can see where an "icon prayer corner" has been set up.
We continue the same kinds of practices today—though the practices have changed with time and culture. There are some things you just expect to see in Benedictine houses. There are always multiple statues and pictures of Benedict and Scholastica. There’s usually some cross that is distinctive to that particular house, like you have with your house. Monastic houses seem to take such special care of their cemeteries. When I was on the "retreat circuit," I used to always visit the community’s cemetery and found them very moving places. They told the story of that house in a unique way.
In our own individual lives we often have some similar visual reminders that vary with each person. Perhaps a cross, a pin, a picture, an icon corner, a special book. There are some monks at St. Meinrad that have mezuzahs on the door frames to their rooms. Others that have special holy water fonts inside their doors.
This day and this passage from Deuteronomy might be a good occasion for each of us to identify: what are the visual landmarks of my Christian faith, what are the visual landmarks of my Benedictine tradition, what are the visual landmarks of my particular house? And how faithful am I in responding to them regularly?
Tuesday, March 1, 2011
Each month, Anne, a lay apostle, receives a message from Jesus. This is the message for March. To read more about the locutions Anne receives from Jesus and His Blessed Mother click on this link: Direction For Our Times.
Be at peace, dear apostles. I urge you to strive daily to be at peace. All that surrounds you will benefit from your understanding that while the world changes, God remains the same. I am the same. I am with you and the reason I urge you toward a peaceful countenance is because the enemy of peace sows fear in God’s children. You may think that I am asking you to be at peace but that this is too difficult. Dear friend of My heart, consider for a moment. What diminishes your peace? Which people? Which habits? Which activities? Ask yourself why these people or things diminish your peace? You must find these answers in contemplation of Me and contemplation of heavenly concepts. Only then will you be able to readily identify the contrast between the feeling of peace that heaven offers to you and the feeling of agitation that the world offers to you. The Spirit within you directs you to quiet, even in the midst of what might necessarily be a busy life. If you work from Me, you will retain your peace in activity and interaction with others because you will be giving and receiving Me. When you are with someone who is unable to accept My love, My love will surround that person until that person can receive it and you will not have wasted love because My love blesses you even as it moves through you. By working from Me, you are disciplining yourself to remain peaceful because I am peace. I am calm. I am love. How often I ask you to provide the world with a contrast and it is in remaining peaceful that you will do so. Be alert to My presence and you will spread peace.