Readings: Is 55:1-3; Rm 8:35-39; Mt 14:13-21
One of the most welcome transitions that I lived through in my lifetime (and many of you did too) was the change in the general tenor of the Catholic Church. It moved from a church centered on guilt and judgment to a church centered on love and service. That has been a very welcome transition flowing from the Second Vatican council. How did the Church ever get into that situation of emphasizing guilt and judgment? Especially when there are such powerful expressions of God’s love for us in so many scriptural passages. Today’s second reading, from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, serves as a marvelous example: "I am convinced that neither death, nor life, neither angels, nor principalities.....nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." That’s a powerful affirmation of the primacy of God’s love for us.
How did we ever get to that Counter-Reformation spirituality centered on guilt, judgment and punishment? There are historical reasons and in hindsight they appear quite clearly. It’s not so easy to see them when one is living forward through them. Some years ago I gave a workshop on the Counter-Reformation to an adult group at Our Lady of the Greenwood parish. To sum up that distinctive Counter-Reform spirituality I read to them a list of themes that one historian had discovered running through the sermons of parish priests, religious order priests and priests who gave parish missions. Here are some of those themes that were preached on again and again: even venial sins are a grave offence against God; Marriage is a dangerous situation; the body is to be feared; any sexual fault is mortal sin; the ‘ascetic model’ is the only way to salvation; all amusement and pleasure are to be rejected; the confessor is to be prosecutor and judge; one bad confession negated all preceding ones. Is it any wonder that scrupulosity and guilt became rife in the Catholic Church. In that parish workshop when we took a break, I was amazed at the number of people who came up to me and said that they had believed every one of those things when they were growing up. Without doubt the Second Vatican Council was a great gift of God to the Church.
There exists a powerful connection between love and service in the Vatican II vision of Christian faith as well as in the vision of the early Christian Church. This love of God for us not only endears us to God and God to us, but it also impels us toward the service of others, to assist people and help them in myriad ways. I don’t think that connection was always appreciated in those first heady years after Vatican II when people were breaking free from guilt and punishment. There certainly were some who turned the late 1960s and early 1970s into the "feel good about yourself" years. They never quite got the connection between love and service.
But we need to get it and pursue it: to hold deeply in our hearts that God loves us, that God strongly desires us to enter into the Divine Presence and that this obliges us to reach out in service to one another. Indeed, we are to seek out the neediest among us and do what we can to help them. That’s why the many people in your community who help each week in food pantries are doing some of the finest Christian work in the whole community. Their service needs to flow from their own conviction of God’s love for them and for all people and that love impels them to serve. That’s the whole message of the teaching and life of Jesus.
Sunday, July 31, 2011
Readings: Is 55:1-3; Rm 8:35-39; Mt 14:13-21
Sunday, July 24, 2011
Readings: 1 Kgs 3:5-12; Rom 8:28-30; Mt 13:44-52
There appeared on a Bulletin Board in the Sisters’ monastery a very fascinating internet article about "Things that will disappear in our lifetime." Just listen to some of these and consider how much and for how long they have been fixtures in our daily lives. The Post Office. The check. The newspaper. The land line telephone. The book. Television. They are all losing money rapidly and have little chance of sustaining themselves in the long run. They are all being "done in" by the microchip revolution and the computer. There are many other things that will go along with these disappearances. As my sister, Nancy, who teaches sociology reminded me: with each one of them there will also disappear thousands of jobs. And as my mother, age 97 reminded me: the poor will get poorer. She said: people like me who can’t use a computer are just out of luck.
All of this reminds us—more than we would like to admit—how deep and broad are the cultural changes we are currently living through. Many of these changes can make us extremely uncomfortable. Because they mean the end of ways and habits that we had become familiar with and grown to like very much. I really like getting the newspaper each morning and reading it with my cup of coffee. Having my coffee with a hand-hold computer just isn’t the same thing. As I was reading this list to my sister over the phone, she was agreeing with them one by one and was showing where they were already beginning to happen. But when I got to the book and the television, she cried out: "Oh no! Not my book and my TV too." Such a time of deep cultural change can be a very hard time for some people.
Most modern Christians are probably not aware of it, but a very similar religious cultural transition was going on among the first two generations of Christians. All the early followers of Jesus were Jews and very deeply rooted in their Jewish religious culture. But in believing in the teachings of Jesus and especially in his death and resurrection, they had to confront a whole new set of convictions and practices. Some of these fit easily into their Jewish background and others did not. There were some very contentious debates among Christians in those first generations. There were certain Jewish practices that disappeared forever and others were significantly changed. In the year 100AD a Christian could easily have written an article entitled, "Things that will disappear in our lifetime."
The gospel passage we just heard speaks to that situation of cultural change, particularly the last line: "Every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the old and the new." Jesus is telling his disciples that they are going to keep some things from their Jewish background and others are going to be replaced by new beliefs and practices. The wisdom, of course, is knowing exactly which to keep and which to replace. There are no exact guidelines for that. We need to pray for the help of God’s Spirit. And pray hard!
The story of Solomon in the first reading provides us a valuable insight about dealing with changing times. Solomon doesn’t look to himself, but to how he can help others. The danger, when we deal with times of transition, is to look too much to ourselves, to what we have to change and don’t want to. The more we look to helping others, the more we will be helping ourselves to cope with change. It’s a lesson we are all going to have to learn.
Sunday, July 10, 2011
Readings: Is 55:10-11; Rm 8:18-23: Mt 13; 1-9
One of my past community members at St. Meinrad that I will always remember was Br. Rene Bouillon. Br. Rene was a large, hefty man with a sometimes jovial, sometimes gruff personality. He was for many years the manager of the Abbey laundry. He developed the habit of addressing his fellow monks by their laundry number. "Hello, Br. Rene; hello, 204." He was a quite intelligent man who had a keen interest in his Belgian heritage. I remember his intense joy on sifting through the possessions of one of his deceased relatives over in the little town of Leopold. He discovered a traditional wooden shoe, a sabot, that had been made in Belgium. He was joyous for weeks. But what I remember most are the last years of his life. He was scheduled to have surgery for a hernia and the doctor ordered an X-ray to make sure there were no complicating factors. But the X-ray showed a spot on one of his lungs. So soon after the hernia surgery, there was another surgery to remove the spot. It was cancerous. There followed two years of chemotherapy, radiation and intense pain before he finally succumbed to the disease. But one time during those last two years I came out of my monastery room and I met Br. Rene laboriously and painfully making his way down the hall. He just looked at me with a face filled with sadness and said, "What did I ever do to deserve this?" So I invited him into my room to talk about it. He came to me often until he died.
It seems to me that same feeling (what did I ever do to deserve this) is in the background of all three readings we heard this morning. And the blunt response is: "You simply have to trust in God’s plan, God’s will. There’s nothing you can do about it." The readings, of course, put it much more delicately than that. Isaiah says, "The word of God goes forth and accomplishes all it seeks." Paul writes: "all creation is groaning in labor pains." And Jesus’ parable in the gospel passage is: the seed falls where it will. The blunt message is the same in all of them: "You simply have to trust in God’s plan, God’s will. There’s nothing you can do about it and it’s NOT your fault."
That was what I had to explain to Br. Rene in his suffering and pain. I didn’t put it in such blunt terms. But at base it’s a hard message; there are no two ways about it. Especially when one begins to survey human history or even our present times and sees the many, many brutalities that people inflict on each other, particularly innocent victims. There isn’t any way you can avoid asking "why," why doesn’t God do something to intervene? Why doesn’t God answer my own heartfelt plea for help? Or Br. Rene’s question: "what did I ever do to deserve this?"
The Bible gives us two answers that clash. On the one hand, we are told to make our needs known to God. "Pray to your Heavenly Father." On the other hand we are told, "It’s all in God’s Will. God’s plan will surely work itself out. There’s nothing you can do about it." We are told to hold to both of them, even though we can’t see how they make sense together. That’s what faith is all about and it can be very, very hard.
It seems to me that the prayer that expresses all this best is the prayer for Anointing. "May the Lord in His love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up." The prayer asks that we be strengthened in whatever difficulty we are facing. It then recognizes that God has already saved us and we ask for a future betterment, whether in this life or in the next. It’s a beautiful prayer. We will hear it often in just over a week.
Monday, July 4, 2011
Readings: Zech 9:9-10; Rom 8:9-13; Mt 11:25-30
Way back in 1964, when I was in my first year of theology studies at St. Meinrad, I read a book that had a huge impact on my way of thinking----it was A Study of Hebrew Thought by Claude Tresmontant, a very noted Scripture scholar. (I doubt anyone here is going to rush out and read this book.) What struck me so forcefully was the way the book severely challenged some presumptions I had held for a long time. In the chapter on "Hebrew Anthropology" the author explained how the Hebrew mentality looked at the human being in an integrated wholistic way. There was no division into body and soul as two separate principles as Greek thought did. Rather the reference was always to the total person acting in a particular way. To exemplify his point Tresmontant referred specifically to the exact passage we heard this morning from Paul’s Letter to the Romans concerning being "in the flesh" and "in the spirit." From the Hebrew perspective these do not refer to our usual understandings of body and soul, but rather to different orientations of the whole human person.
That just blew away the meanings I had always assumed. To me "in the flesh" had always meant body, sex and everything associated with them. I had never imagined it could have been anything different. But the writer said that "in the flesh" refers to considering yourself more than any other person or issue. In other words, to be "in the flesh" means to act selfishly. To be "in the spirit" means to act with the needs of others in mind. It is similar to a point that Sr. Karen made in one of her retreat conferences last week when she cited a reference to two different kinds of power: unilateral and relational. Unilateral power is forcing others to do what I want them to do. Relational power is to be in dialogue with others and working with them toward a common goal. That’s to be "in the spirit." It took me quite a while to digest all that.
Years later I discovered a variation on all this in the Episcopalian theologian Urban Holme’s distinction between the hot and cold sins of the clergy (Spirituality for Ministry, pp. 42-57). Let me read you a portion of this chapter: "American religion is obsessed with the warm sins of the clergy such as illicit sex and gluttony. .... The sins that should concern us far more deeply are those that prevent the clergy from exercising their spiritual vocation. These cold sins truly violate the mission of the pastor to be an instrument of spiritual growth." (P. 43) He then goes on to enumerate and exemplify some of these cold sins: the desire for power—always wanting to be the one who controls every situation, insulation and evasion—the refusal to truly listen to other’s problems, abstraction—always speaking in general terms only and never in personal, apathy—not caring at all about other people’s lives, ecclesiastical dilettantism—being totally concerned with the trappings of religion like vestments, incense and stained glass windows. To one who is primarily concerned about any of these things St. Paul would say, "You are ‘in the flesh,’ acting primarily in a selfish manner."
While Urban Holmes is writing about differences in clergy behavior, the same truly applies to community. It is so easy to gossip about the hot, flashy failings of community members. But it’s the cold failings that are far more damaging to community life: the snubbing of other people, the refusal to be compassionate about another’s difficulties, wanting to control every situation insisting that our word be the last in any discussion. It is to these people that St. Paul would say, "You are in the flesh." And "If you live according to the flesh, you will die." Let’s heed these words today.
Friday, July 1, 2011
Each month, Anne, a lay apostle, receives a message from Jesus. This is the message for July. To read more about the locutions Anne receives from Jesus and His Blessed Mother click on this link: Direction For Our Times.
My dear apostles, do you see how I am working through you? Be alert to My presence in your day and, as a grace, I will give you a glimpse of what I am accomplishing. Look for little blessings going out to others. Look for flashes of consolation in suffering or calming of your heart when your heart feels anxious. You see, dear apostles, not only do I move through you to others, but I minister to you in a continuous way so that you are sustained. I want you to be peaceful. I want you to be calm. I want you to understand that if you say no to Me, there are others who will not be comforted and others who will not be blessed and instructed through you. You, My beloved apostles who remain firm in service, act as holy hands and hearts. Your holy hands and your holy hearts are used to gently tap others, into service, into healing and into love for Me and all of the Father’s children on earth. How earnestly I ask the Father for greater blessings for you. How earnestly I prompt you, through the Spirit, to continue on in service. I know that there are times when you need encouragement, so at this time, I will send you evidence of either your progress or of the effect of your willingness to serve on others. Look for this, dear apostles, and then you will know that I am with you and that I am using your presence on earth. When you see this, be at peace. Gird yourself in holiness and prepare for further service, not less service. You are important to Me and I count you as an asset in this time of change.