In today’s mass readings, St. Paul tells the Romans, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Cf. Rom. 4:1-8). Later, the Lord warns his followers, “Beware the leaven – that his, the hypocrisy – of the Pharisees (Lk. 12:1-7). How might we look with eyes of faith at these readings and daily life?
To begin with, belief, even under the best of circumstances can be really hard. …and I mean believe in anything. The strongest beliefs usually involve an intense credibility between the believer and the person proposing the belief. Such credibility usually comes after a long relationship with ups and downs. Our own life stories/history complicate things, as does trying to peer into the future, “What will the consequences of this belief be for how I live?” Belief is, perhaps, hardest when involves total lack of control… as in, “I believe that everything will turn out ok.” So, indeed, the fact that Abraham believed God would bring him across the desert to the Promised Land… and give him a vast lineage in his old age… the fact that Abraham believed was truly credited to him as righteousness.
At the other end of the spectrum are the Pharisees who had sold out. Those who should’ve believed in, hoped for, looked for the coming of the heavenly Kingdom could not recognize it when they appeared in Jesus. Rather, they sought a lesser peace, founded on fear, collaborating with the authorities of the Roman Empire. Nowhere is this more obvious than the trial of Jesus (Lk. 22-23).
Most of us exist somewhere between the Pharisaical fear and Abrahamic Faith. I know that reading these texts this morning, I couldn’t quite place myself. I really have no clue what the future holds for the parish where I serve, but I know God wants people there to get to heaven. “Lord, how will we overcome our obstacles? Lord, are you there? Is there hope? I do believe Lord… help my unbelief.”
To avoid getting stuck in the challenges of belief, always contemplate… then act. Today’s saint, Paul of the Cross, is a great example for us. Paul founded the Passionist Fathers, whose yearly existence is instructive. The Passionists spend several months each year living as contemplatives, observing a rigorous monastic schedule before returning to active ministry for the remaining months of the year. What a witness! A great example is Passionist father, Bl. Dominic Barberi. Dominic was an Italian theologian fascinated by the beginnings of the Oxford Movement in the Anglican Church. Traveling to England (which was not a terribly welcoming place for Catholics or non-English speakers at the time), Dominic began to learn about budding converts at Oxford. Preaching one day in pouring rain, holding his passionis cross high in the air, he was spied by a young John Henry Newman. Newman had set a little test for God. He was so close to becoming Cathoic, but needed a little push to put him over the edge. He said, “If I could but see a holy priest preaching with the cross, I would convert.” Newman saw Fr. Barberi and was (along with two friends) received by him into the Church. Barberi had no idea when he left Italy that his mission to England would not only enhance the Oxford Movement, but give spiritual birth to one of the greatest theologians of the last five hundred years. Contemplation led to belief… belief to action… action to the fulfillment of God’s plan.
Lord, I do believe… fill me with a contemplative Spirit… help my unbelief, and move me to be your instrument though another day. Amen.
Usually, the inspirations I draw, “the Word I receive,” (to use a more charismatic turn of phrase) from the Divine Office come from the Psalms, or readings. This morning, however, the Lord touched me through one of the antiphons… one of those refrains at the beginning and end of each section of the Office for the day. While not the substance of the Office, the antiphons are, nonetheless part of the sacred text, and usually drawn from Scritpture. When the Office was regularly sung, their tunes and words often became major sources of inspiration for the saints.
“I will sing to you O Lord. I will learn from you the way of perfection.” Today’s antiphon for the first psalm exclaims. Lord, the last few weeks have been trying… and will continue to be, but you ARE present in the midst of it all, teaching me a way of perfection. On me retreate you blessed me, showing me the way to forgiveness. There was someone I’ve had a hard time forgiving… literally for years at this point, and YOU Lord, your Spirit finallly led me to forgive. Maybe I couldn’t actively do it myself, but in the silence of stepping back, you did in me, what I could not do myself. You showed me a way of perfection.
Coming home, I entered into a swirl of activities that physically and mentally exhausted me, but Lord, we got through it. You showed me a way of Peace… a way of surrender to let you manage everything I could not… and somehow the sun kept on rising, until things calmed down… it happens every morning when I sit before your Blessed Sacrament in a way of silence, peace and perfection.
We are short staffed, short of funds, but you sent Fr. Michael to tell me about that book he read by Archbishop Kurtz about a “theology of abundance.” Kurtz reminds us that we do have everything we need for mission in a given circumstance… ‘reminds me of St. Teresa of Avila who said, “Why do you assume the riches God gives you aren’t exactly what you need?” And indeed, over the last week some new people have showed up for prayer, for blessings, for mass. They were not touched by buildings or by riches, but by your Word of Hope. Will they come back? I don’t know, but maybe that wasn’t the task this week. Maybe the task was to touch their lives just once here. St. Philip reminds me that we are to be a small reinforcement at just the right time in just the right place that contributes to winning the battle. A way of abundance, a way of perfection.
“Lead kindly light” in the way of perfection until one day I pray I might reach the perfection of eternal rest in you. -Amen
“Dramatic contrasts can evoke dramatic responses,” I think as a single tear wells up rolling down my face. “I’m in the shower for goodness sake. I’m at home… at rest after a morning of visits around the neighborhood. Why the tear?” I ask, almost rhetorically, because I think I know the answer. My bathroom in the rectory was cleaned this morning. The air is crisp with bleach and fabric softener. Black and white tiles are cool and smooth to the touch. A newly opened bar of soap is fresh as only a brand new bar can be. At the sink, steam rises from my shaving bowl. It’s scented with eucalyptus from the shaving soap. With every stroke of the blade my skin feels cleansed but my heart is heavy. Dramatic contrast evokes dramatic responses.
As I mentioned, I spent the morning visiting some of our neediest neighbors. They’re lovely people I’ve met through a group of young Catholic missionaries here in the parish. Normally I get home feeling tired, but renewed by the process; today renewal is taking longer. I’ve been amazed by the warm, hospitable response from these good folks when I – a total stranger – arrive at their homes. Taking my cues from the missionaries who’ve been at this for years, I help carry simple groceries or other sundries. Usually, I carry holy water for house blessings, a small New Testament in my pocket for Scripture reading. Other than that all we bring is good will and prayer. Today we visited a woman I’ve met a few times. I omit her name as a matter of discretion. She lives in what can only be described as squalor.
Approaching her semi-basement apartment, we never enter through the front door/hallway. Whenever I ask why, the missionaries just tell me, “Trust us, it’s better this way.” We go around back to the sliding door. You have to climb over a safety rail and down into the submerged patio, the descent eased with the help of a broken down aluminum folding chair standing in for a ladder. “Sliding glass” door is somewhat of a misnomer, so jammed are its tracks, its window so obscured by neglect. Vertical blinds, once pearl white, are stained an acrid yellow. What furniture there is doesn’t so much “sit” in the apartment as it “remains…” the couch veritably collapsed on itself. Generations of stereo speakers pile high in the corner behind mysterious bags of clothing and household goods long since ruined by flooding and vermin infestation. With a smile… a genuine smile… our hostess welcomes us to her home.
She’s happy for the company and looks forward to us reading the Bible to her. We have to read it to her because she’s blind. Born with sight, she lost her vision after multiple drug-involved abusive relationships with men from the area. It’s been a long road for this lady so simple and pleasant. Over time I discover that things have settled down for her. She pays her own rent, supports her grandchildren as best she can and, “trusts all to Jesus” (her words).
From the back of the apartment I hear something stir. A young woman emerges. Dressed in hip-hop apparel, she never glances up from her phone. Our hostess tells her that we’ve come to visit and read the Bible. The young woman isn’t a niece, or grandchild. She’s a city-sponsored in-home aide. Excusing herself the aide slips out the sliding glass door, up the chair to the parking lot and her car. There she sits in the passenger seat, heavily reclined, phone-in-hand, spending the next twenty minutes smoking weed; a sinuous yellow cloud carries on the breeze into the apartment where we read the Gospel.
After the reading and some prayers, we find out that our hostess’ mom is in the hospital. We offer to drive her there for a visit. Our hostess is happy for the opportunity. Shuffling into her room, she sits on the floor… a carpet that was once – I think – blue, now charcoal grey with stains… There she digs through piles of boxes and bags for her shoes. She doesn’t want help. There’s nothing unusual about this for her, why would she need assistance? With surprising ease, she ascends the folding chair and climbs over the safety rail to reach our car waiting for her in the lot. Calling to the aide, several cars over, she tells her where she’s going. The aide is still occupied, a burning cigarette in one hand, a young man now in the other. They are not to be disturbed.
On the way to the hospital I prodded a little to find out what our hostess’ care arrangements look like. She began a long catalog of in-home-aides who have abused her verbally, or simply by neglect. Likewise her landlord. Over the last several months a macabre menagerie has been discovered: mice behind the oven, birds in the HVAC, roaches under the carpet… and all of them dead. It has been – I discover – six months since a pro-bono lawyer began legal proceedings against the landlord…. and longer than that, I’m confident, since the situation reached so sad a depth.
Entering the United Medical Center in SE DC is like walking into most other hospitals with one marked exception. Instead of kindly volunteers greeting you at the desk, you find armed …and armored… police checking your ID. On the way in, I’m greeted by several local Catholics who see my collar. One grabbed my hand. She resisted my initially frightened recoil. A split second later I was glad for her grip. She hugged my hand close to her cheek and put it on her head. “Pray over me. Bless me,” she begged. She wasn’t crazy, she truly wanted Jesus’ blessing. Catching up with my friends, we found our hostess’ mother. I’d met this kind old woman several times in her own home. We prayed together. I recited some verses of comfort from the Scriptures and blessed her. I asked both women how they were feeling. Their response surprised me, “Blessed. We know Jesus is with us.” When I asked them how they knew that, the answer almost knocked me over, “because y’all ‘always visitin’ us.” We left the two women to themselves, and departed: my missionary friend to his work, me to the Rectory, where a pile of emails waits for me even as I recount this story.
I had to clean up when I got home…to rinse the smell of marijuana from myself… but as I stared in the mirror, a stainless steel razor gleaming in my hand, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the contrast. Dramatic contrasts can evoke dramatic responses. Our parish survives on very little. I’ve sliced the budget every way I can to make ends meet supported by our tiny community (150 people / Sunday), but even amidst that simplicity, everything here is clean. People are respectful of each other and of strangers. They greet each other with a smile, an embrace. Here, as the Psalmist says, the Lord has strengthened the bars of our gates and blessed the children within us, established peace on our borders and fed us with finest wheat (Cf Ps 147). Most of the people I meet on these Friday visits will never escape poverty. The more I see here in Southeast, the more I am convinced that you could give everyone in Wards 7 and 8 a pile of money and within a short time they’d be back where they started. What I’ve also seen is that whether or not they join us sacramentally (I’m currently working with a few people who’ve expressed real interest in conversion), they know by our missionary work that God has not abandoned them, and so they are not afraid. Having received that hope, whether they know it or not, they pass it back to me with each visit… To me, that exchange is what St. John Paul II was all about when he said, “Be not afraid!” It’s what Pope Benedict had in mind when he penned, Spe Salvi, and certainly what Pope Francis has in mind as he directs us to the margins of our all too disposable society. So, for as much as I helped lead a blind woman today, I find myself led by her as well.
The end of this week brings us to the end of I Timothy, Paul’s beautiful and practical letter to one of his successors, St. Timothy, about how to be a bishop. Chapter 6 picks up on some themes I considered two posts ago from Philippians 4:
I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need. I can do all things in him who strengthens me.
But I Tim 6 touches on these themes in a way that may not makes us very comfortable.
Those who are bound to slavery must treat their masters as entitled to all respect; otherwise God’s name and our doctrine will be ill spoken of.
Is this a tacit endorsement of slavery? By no means… Ironically, it’s actually Paul and the early Christian community laying hold to true freedom!
Paul knows that whether the issue is slavery, food, physical health, persecution… whatever, wide open… there will always be something making this world a valley of tears. In the end it must be so. Even if we built a perfect city on earth, there would still be death. And if that basic axiom of science, “All living things die,” is to be believed, then the larger issue is, “how do we deal with death?” And that is what Christian doctrine is all about. That is why Paul admonishes slaves to treat their masters with respect: because in their given state of life, however horrible it may be, that is the ultimate sacrifice and thus the one worthy of being joined to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, the path to true eternal freedom in heaven. Paul speaks to his heavenward orientation a little further on. He warns us about false preachers who puff themselves up, using “speculation and controversy” and lose track of the truth (cf I Tim 6:3-5). Religion, they think, will provide them with a living. And indeed, religion is ample provision for life, though no more than a bare sufficiency goes with it.” (I Tim 6:6-7). That distinction between making “a living,” (read “salary”) and providing for “life,” (read: “the existence of the soul”) is what it’s all about.
If Jesus is indeed, the Risen Lord… and he is… and if that’s is the kernel of what he came to achieve for us: Resurrection. Then whatever our state in life (no more Jew or Gentile, no more slave and freeman, no more male and female; you are all one person in Christ Jesus Gal. 3:28), we are called to embrace total sacrifice with him, “otherwise God’s name and our doctrine will be ill spoken of.” Or, put another way: we will have made a liar of God… Material circumstances, the world, the saeculum, will have won; and our souls, and the souls of many others, will fall for lack of belief in his Hope. Preferisco Paradiso!
Washington has been abuzz this week with talk of the MLB Playoffs. Our Nationals played, and lost, against the Chicago Cubs. It was a fine series by any account, and there’s no shame losing in game five. All the adversarial talk that has come up… all the “Us vs. Them” conversations… and of course the larger context of, “Is DC as championship team?”… All of this comes to mind as I read the first reading for today’s mass. It’s from the first two chapters of the Book of Joel. As a plague of locusts ravages the Kingdom of Judah, Joel sees in their arrival portents of a larger struggle: the end of the world. A brief excerpt from Chapter 2 follows:
Blow the horn in Zion, sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming! Yes, it approaches, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of thick clouds! Like dawn spreading over the mountains, a vast and mighty army! Nothing like it has ever happened in ages past, nor will the future hold anything like it, even to the most distant generations.
What struck me was the simile at the end, “Like dawn spreading over the mountains, a vast and mighty army.” Now, that’s the Lectionary translation. The New American Bible says, “a mighty people,” closer to the Latin, “populus multus et fortis.” Who are these people?
Normally when we read prophecy, we associate ourselves with the prophet’s audience; a natural association given we are listening to him. But… there’s nothing to say we can’t change… or better yet, convert. Indeed, isn’t that what every prophet dreams of: that his listeners should listen well and convert? Will we be part of the conquered, destroyed, judged, people on whom this “populus multus et fortis” marches like the dawn? Or will we be on God’s side today?
I asked the same question in prayer about two weeks ago when the Church was listening to the words of another prophet, Ezekiel… in the Office of Readings I think, it was… the prophet warns the wicked shepherds of Israel about their selfish neglect of the sheep. Paralleled by St. Augustine’s Sermon on Pastors warning the priests of the Church, it’s hard to read such prophecies, such warnings and not feel accused. To be sure, a priest, a shepherd has to tend his flock… must always grow in that vocation… But then I read Ez. 34:11-12 “For thus says the Lord God: I myself will look after my sheep. As a shepherd tends his flock when he finds himself among his scattered sheep, so will I tend my sheep.” On the one hand I am a shepherd, but I’m also one of God’s sheep… and he promises to support me, care for me, just as much as any of the rest. AND… if I recommit myself to being one of his sheep, maybe, just maybe he’ll give me what I need to be a better shepherd.
Reading the Old Testament prophets, it’s worthwhile to ask the question, “Which people will I be part of today?”
Gospel simplicity and poverty have been on my mind lately. A few significant expenses in September reduced our operating account to a level that… well, let’s just say it doesn’t inspire much confidence. Over and over, in conversations with the parish accountant, both of us utter the refrain, “There’s really not much more we can cut.” Meanwhile, a parish employee has indicated a need to step back from work for a time, throwing the delicate balance of our rectory’s functioning into a degree of uncertainty. It’ll sound strange, but the thing that worries me the most about this employee’s absence is, “who will be here to receive UPS packages. It may seem odd, but sometimes these are essential items, documents etc. that require signatures lest they go back to their senders. On how little can a modern parish function? There are some good things beginning to happen here: the growth of our outreach to the poor, students in our school are doing well, as it enrollment… so much potential that, with just a little more help might come to great fruition.
Lord, is this a test? Not just of me your poor servant, but of our community… of the very concept of trusting in you, rather than in our own plans?? …and yet Lord, you have made us cooperators in your own plans. Surely our thoughts and input must figure in to the mix somewhere?!?!
Preparing for Sunday’s masses (28th week, Ordinary Time) I read from Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20. I wondered what the missing verses said. Here is the whole quotation, with verses 15-18 included in italics:
I know indeed how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need. I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me. Still, it was kind of you to share in my distress.You Philippians indeed know that at the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, not a single church shared with me in an account of giving and receiving, except you alone. For even when I was at Thessalonica you sent me something for my needs, not only once but more than once. It is not that I am eager for the gift; rather, I am eager for the profit that accrues to your account. I have received full payment and I abound. I am very well supplied because of what I received from you through Epaphroditus, “a fragrant aroma,” an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. My God will fully supply whatever you need, in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father, glory forever and ever. Amen.
For me, this morning, the missing verses do a few things. First, they intensify the sense of Paul’s total reliance on and confidence in God. Second, these verses educate us all about what generosity is all about… It’s about taking part in making an “acceptable sacrifice to God,” that, “accrues,” as Paul says, to our benefit in heaven.
Whether it’s my own people giving, or a new revenue stream/donor being found, today’s missing verses remind me that ultimately, keeping our parish up and running (in the traditional sense) is only a means to a larger end: getting to heaven. And if those revenues don’t materialize, and I need to do with less staff, less AC/Heat in the Rectory, or whatever the case may be be, then that too will become a gift, a “fragrant aroma,” acceptable to God for the salvation of parishioners’ souls… and maybe even my own.
So Lord, it’s all in your hands. And we forsake all other possible destinations and stops along the way, preferring a direct road to heaven itself. “Preferisco paradiso.”
Some thoughts from morning prayer before the Blessed Sacrament today…
“O praise the Lord, Jerusalem! Zion, praise your God! He has strengthened the bars of your gates, he has blessed the children within you. He has established peace on your borders, he feeds you with finest wheat. He sends out his word to the earth and swiftly runs his command.” (Ps. 147:12-ff)
Lord, what is a parish but this: a place of your presence and praise… A place where your priests and people set up firm boundaries through teaching and prudence so that the children within may indeed be blessed and fed with finest wheat before bringing your words and commands to all the earth. Lord, help our parish to be that for SE DC today and always.
Jesus reconciles “both of us to God in one body through his cross which put [our] enmity to death.” (Cf. Eph. 2:13-16)
Lord, in the identity of your Church as a place of healing for all, divisions fade. Your medicine is the Cross that we all need to accept… not just our crosses, which can inspire continued division, but YOUR cross, uniquely present to us in the Mass. …and because, Lord, our healing is never complete until we reach heaven, ALL must be humble helping each other to look up and see you raised on that tree… “made sin” that we might be made whole (Cf. II Cor 5:21). In that humility… the humility of our common neediness, the medicine of your cross: penance, virtue, doctrine… becomes a sweetness, a cause for joy as the way to the more glorious self in the Resurrection.
“Silence is golden,” so they say… and whoever they may be, they’re right! All the best things happen in silence. In silence a person realizes that he loves another. In silence we realize that we are loved. As Cardinal Sarah points out in his wonderful book, “The Power of Silence,” even the voice of God telling us we are loved emerges, in and from… silence. I want to muse on a few examples of silence’s beauty that I’ve encountered and then make a modest, quiet proposal regarding recent headlines in Catholic media.
Between 1999 and 2003 I was a student at the George Washington University, here in DC. When we first introduced Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament to the Catholic Student Center it was a new concept for many, myself included. We needed to have music played/sung throughout our holy hour. But as time went on and our relationship with Christ matured, more and more students wanted more and more silence. I came to discover that the same holds true in many youth movements: Steubenville, life teen, charismatic renewal etc. While people initially associate them with loud joyous musical praise (all of which is good), the long-initiated participants begin adding more and more elements of silence to their lives. Silence is a place we should aim for as a goal of spiritual maturity.
In 2005, Pope St. John Paul II died. I was there, in St. Peter’s Square when it happened. Their was a quiet recitation of the Rosary… The Holy Father’s death was announced… a brief applauds to commend his soul on high… and then silence. What was more amazing was what happened next. Millions, perhaps six million visitors came to Rome to observe his funeral. The world stopped… foreign leaders, some of them at war with one another, gathered peacefully in Rome to pay homage and pray. In the squares you could hear a pin drop as the Eucharist was consecrated at the altar. How beautiful! BUT even more impressive was this: The world had been a very noisy place during John Paul II’s more than quarter century in the Chair of Peter. In that noise, many thought the Church was dead, done for. And yet… the entire world showed up for this sainted man’s funeral. What explains the disconnect? Silence. Catholicism bears the greatest fruit in quiet, humble, ministry carried out by men and women, priests, religious and lay people everywhere under the radar. When John Paul II died, the whole Church in all her mighty beauty rose up out of the silence to celebrate his life and commend him to God. The world… the noisy world was shocked and awed by the Church’s thunder. Far from dead her new springtime was just beginning. But it begins and germinates like all life… in humble silence.
Just a few years ago, a fellow priest won an award. He will remain safely anonymous to prevent any chance of embarrassment. I’ve always known him to be a nice guy, a good priest, and steady worker in his field… but always so quiet. He doesn’t publish books. He doesn’t hob-nob with the wealthy. He’s always gentle, even to the point of being a little awkward. He prays and he ministers, a smoldering wick he does not quench, no reed does he bend. Then someone noticed… almost by accident and it was so blatantly obvious that he deserved the award he received. After the photos, celebration and claps on the back, this good priest returned to the grand silence of his daily work… and I’m forever grateful for his example. I want to be more like him: silent and radiant with Christ.
Finally, there’s the beauty of the confessional’s silence. In the most humble, quiet, secret of places, the greatest work of the Church is done. Sins are forgiven. Healing is brought to bear. Souls turn back to face God again. Is it any wonder that the silence of this place is the most closely protected privileges of the Church? In the quiet of the confessional… and in the quiet that follows… I’ve been so privileged to accompany people of diverse backgrounds through a wide range of life-challenges, gently applying both the love and the teaching of the Church in a way that no one ever knows about, but brings conversion. It won’t ever make it on to the news or twitter, but real change happens in the silence of the confessional’s truth and charity.
I’m offering up this meditation on silence… something I’ve been thinking of a lot lately… because of recent events in Catholic news. As one might expect, so many headlines surround news coming out of the Vatican. More locally, there’s been a big dust up over Fr. James Martin’s recent book on the Church’s relationship with people who have same-sex attractions. And in the coming weeks, months, years, there will be yet more news-quakes over other many issues in the realm of Catholic social media. My opinions on any such matters are held… in silence. What follows is for all on all sides of every issue. My quiet, modest proposal is this: In all things, on all sides, regarding all those concerned from every background… do we perceive the grand silence of the Church that marks spiritual maturity, fruitful ministry, and conversion? Silence is the lens through which we should judge “am I going in the right direction?”
Does a priest whether a parish priest, author, or blogger have followers…? disciples…? If so he should stop his writing immediately lest they or he be tempted away from humble service of Christ. Remember Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:12-ff) who were treated as gods… any priest who thinks he may have “followers” or “disciples” should rend his garments, his tablet and his manuscripts and disabuse such followers. Only Jesus is Lord. Better to bring your media empire crashing down around you than lead one soul astray… whatever the opinion, whatever the issue however right you think you may be.
Do the lay faithful get wrapped up in twitter debates and the like, choosing sides and fostering division within the Church? Remember St. Paul’s words (II Thess. 3) “Such people we instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly…” Even if you are 100% sure you’re side is right… STOP… the fight is not winning others to conversion… and the misery is doing little to save your own soul. Repent, pray, adore, serve others quietly and you’ll be on a better track.
In almost ten years as a priest I’ve been wowed, privileged to see lots of conversions of heart. The two subjects-du-jour seem to be divorced and remarried Catholics, and those who self-describe as part of the LGBT community… and from BOTH of these groups I’ve encountered, accompanied and been part of people coming to Christ, to healing… to conversion. What a beauty! What a blessing! but it never happened through blogs, books, publications or news interviews. It happened in silence… a personal internal silence for the people concerned… the silence of long-developed pastoral friendships with them… the silence of the confessional. The Church needs more silence… I know my soul’s future is riding on it as are the souls of all those Jesus is calling us to love.
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote – of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin – “It is a pious belief that she died from love. This alone could kill that body. It was a contest between body and soul. The body so strong, the soul so desirous to see God.” If in this month of August we want to follow Mary’s example all the way into heaven, how great it is for us to consider her identity as one killed by love… a martyr to Charity. Most of us will never be asked to offer up a martyr’s gift by blood, but like our Lady, we can so give ourselves over to loving Christ that one day, when God allows it, our body will yield to our soul’s desire to be with him forever; and our journey to him will be swift. How do we do it?
Let’s consider three moments from Mary’s life: The Annunciation, The Visitation, the Way of the Cross.
At the Annunciation we know that Mary first and foremost received the Love of God, both in his words and in his Word. “Hail full of grace, the Lord is with you, blessed are you among women… you have found favor in the sight of God. And behold, you shall conceive in the womb and bear a son, and shall call him Jesus.” (Lk 1:28-ff) As St. John tells us, “the love of God consists in this, not that we have loved him, but that he loved us first.” (I Jn 4:10). And having received that love, having perceived it, she contemplated it, “she cast about in her mind what she was to make of such a greeting.” (Lk 1:29). Contemplation of the love received is always a first step in the Christian life because, as St. Jean Vianney tells us, “we can love what we have perceived.”
Having received the Love of the Father in the Spirit, and having contemplated that Love, Mary decides how to reply to it in the Visitation. Her response is two-fold: first, she sets off to the hill country to serve her cousin in need (Elizabeth) (Lk 1:39-ff). It’s at this point that she utters Scripture’s most beautiful hymn of praise, the Magnificat. It’s the song of a young woman’s love: excited, exultant… and like all young love, it is desirous. Service, sharing what God has done for us, and fanning the flames of desirous love; I see this so beautifully on display in our high school and college campus ministries. When young people begin to contemplate the Lord just a little bit, they want to jump up and serve him in their neighbors… and as they do, as I hear their laughter, their praise at Eucharistic Adoration, their trust in confession/counsel, what I hear is an every-day form of the Magnificat. Like Mary, they run after God, they pursue him with ever greater intensity… sometimes almost recklessly… but always in love.
Finally we come to the Way of the Cross. All Christian experience must lead through the Cross, and Mary’s was no different. No longer an excited teen, Our Lady’s love, like the rest of her, has matured. The desire for God is still there, but strong, focused, persevering… and thank God for that mature love. This love is a love of choice, not convenience. As she watches her son take the abuse of the crowds, Mary feels every blow, winces at every mockery, weeps with every drop of blood that he leaves on the road. In an experience totally devoid of consolation, like Christ, she chooses to keep on loving… chooses to believe that the source of her love is still there, supplying her heart with the grace to go forward and attend Jesus in all things.
In the long years that followed, Mary’s love, proven to the utmost, would be a strong support to the nascent Church and the Apostles… and one day, when the Lord allowed, the fruits of her contemplation, desire, and gift were finally realized. She passed on, directly into the glory of the Father who had loved her first and the Son she so desired to see again.
Take time each day to perceive and contemplate God’s love for you… Fan the flames of that love by sharing its story with others and serving them… And choose each day no matter what to persevere. We are all capable of becoming martyr’s to Charity and sharing in Mary’s eternal reward. We return to where we began, Newman’s reflection:
“It was surely fitting then, it was becoming, that she should be taken up into heaven and not lie in the grave till Christ’s second coming, who had passed a life of sanctity and of miracle such as hers… Who can conceive that God should so repay the debt, which he condescended to owe his mother, for the elements of his human body, as to allow the flesh and blood from which it was taken to molder in the grave?”
So… my Rectory is sinking. Well, not the whole house actually, just one corner of it. Nothing quite so dramatic as say… the sinking of Venice, mind you. That kind of drama would at least add an aesthetic quality to the whole experience. No my situation is much more banal. It seems that for several years an unnoticed downspout clog has caused water to collect under the corner of the Rectory, softening the soil. As Jesus himself pointed out, houses don’t do well when not built on solid rock. Hence, the half inch crack in my basement foundation wall, and the gentle (but menacing) bowing of a steel I-beam running under the length of the Rectory.
I’m neither an architect, nor an engineer… the experts with whom I’ve spoken tell me the situation needs to be addressed, but it’s safe… for now. That last little phrase, “for now” runs through their assurance like a half-inch foundation crack… tiny, but menacing.
The day after the engineer’s visit, I went downtown to check in with the Finance Office at the Chancery (i.e. “local church headquarters”). I wanted to review the coming year’s budget with the powers that be and make sure they are well aware of this developing engineering situation… Anytime the word “engineering” is involved, count on the solution being expensive. And the thing is, we don’t have the money. Few parishes do these days and mine is among the tiniest of them. We get by remarkably well – all things considered – but slight upsets threaten disaster.
Whether it’s little old me as Administrator of this lovely parish, or the whole Church trying to survive in the circumstances of the world… or you in the drama of daily life… we are, all of us, in a boat that constantly threatens to take on water (c.f. Mk. 4:35-41). Our situation isn’t actually that unusual, if you think about it… Human beings are always in a fragile state. A tiny clot in our blood can kill. The smallest fraying of the thinnest membrane in our hearts can mean death. A priest from Northern Nigeria told me last year that -there- people fear to sleep…because they never know when a team of militants may come to burn their church and village to the ground. Even in peaceful Edens like central Italy, one never knows when an earthquake may strike. So really, fragility shouldn’t shock us.
Prayer over the last two days reminds me of what Jesus told the Apostles in the boat that stormy night, “Why are you faint hearted? Have you so little faith?” In today’s morning prayer we read from Psalm 57, “in you my soul has taken refuge till the storms of destruction pass by.” and later, “They laid a snare in my path… but fell in it themselves.” The Divine Author speaks in the indicative… He is making a statement, confident. These surges of worry, that are -ultimately- about our lack of control don’t have to entrap us… We are safe in God’s hand… certainly no worse off than people anywhere in the world. In his book, “The Power of Silence,” Cardinal Sarah writes beautifully about how we tend to drag the noise of the world (i.e. these worries) into our prayer life, but they are only surface noise… they need not distract us from the grand silence of God which can claim and renew our souls. “Claim me once more as your own, Lord, and have mercy on me.” This is the Church’s confident refrain (c.f. Evening Prayer).
Lord, remind me today that I… and ‘you-and-I’ are more than the mere circumstances of daily work, daily responsibilities…Remind me Lord that such circumstance, such noise doesn’t need to disturb the ever developing Grand Silence in which you are my refuge. “The light from on high shall break upon us…to guide our feet in the way of peace.” (Lk 1:68-79). Amen.