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Saturday, October 8, 2011

Unearned Privilege

"Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it." Lk 11:28

There are some who might get upset with this passage from Luke. When a woman in the crowd seems to praise Jesus’ mother saying, "Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed," Jesus reacts. A person’s life is not of value, he says, because of her parents or relatives, but by her willingness to listen and live the good news. The Jesus of the gospels would never disparage his own mother’s goodness, but he would and does use the words of an anonymous woman in the crowd to remind his listeners that being born a Jew guarantees nothing. Were he alive today, he might well say that being born a Catholic means little unless one lives one’s religious faith and tradition.

In cultural diversity workshops, which are common these days in large and multinational companies, the concept of “unearned privilege” is often introduced. Initially, those hearing the concept for the first time might have a visceral reaction and reject the notion all together. But suggesting someone has “unearned privilege” is not an accusation, nor it is intended to make people guilty. Rather, it is a concept that helps those born in this country as white, middle class people understand that they have unearned advantages over those who are born black and poor, Asian or Latin American. Exercises that help us understand this notion are designed for insight and change. It is not so much that we want to denigrate who we are, where we live or the color of our skin, but that we want to help those without the unearned privilege access the same social options we have.

I had an interesting experience of unearned privilege when I first joined the Capuchins. 18 years old and full of dreams, I was walking around the grounds of the novitiate in my new brown Capuchin robe when a car entered our driveway. As it approached me, it slowed and through an open window a middle aged woman asked me I had a moment to talk with her. Tempted to say yes, I thought better of it and told her I was only a novice and directed her to front door where she could ask for a priest. My Capuchin robe was my path to unearned privilege. The woman assumed I was trained and ready to respond to her concerns simply because I was wearing religious garb.

Jesus, I suggest, was trying to remind his Jewish brothers and sisters that they were not better than others simply because of their religious clothing, roots or heritage. Rather, he wanted them to live their faith with integrity and a deep sense of justice not by lording it over others but by always remembering their own slavery in Egypt and their times of exile from the Promised Land.

Rather than argue about the validity of a concept like unearned privilege, let’s pray for the insight to see ourselves as others see us and find ways to share the wonderful opportunities given us as Americans and Catholics. When we work to build strong relationships between and among religious traditions, and have the courage to confront anything and anyone that exclude others for no reason other than their religion, race, culture or ethnicity, we build the Reign of God.

Today ask God for the grace to go beyond the essentials of religious practice. Ask for the courage to make your faith the foundation of your life. What could Jesus' challenge to the rich young man to go sell everything and follow him mean in your life?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Our Lady of the Rosary

The rosary is a fascinating prayer. For Catholics born prior to the Second Vatican Council, it was one of the first prayers we learned. Simple, straightforward and clear, we prayed it often individually and as families. While the rosary may have lost some of its luster in the last 40 years, I feel sure it will return to the devotional lives of Catholics in the 21st century because it is a simple form of contemplation and so much like the method at the heart of the Centering prayer movement.

The Cistercian, Thomas Keating, has become one of the best known teachers of Centering prayer. Keating suggests we find a quiet place, sit still and straight, breathe slowly and deeply, and then repeat a word or mantra, like Jesus or peace or help me Lord.  When our attention wanders, we begin again by repeating our mantra, word or the Jesus prayer.

Isn’t that what the rosary helps us do? As we repeat Hail Mary's we focus on a mystery of Jesus' life to help us stay centered and rooted in Christ. There is no need to concentrate on every word of the Hail Mary. Rather, we breathe, enter into one of the mysteries of the Lord's life and ask the him to keep us “centered” in his presence. For those who might find the idea of centering prayer intimidating, the rosary is a wonderful invitation to contemplation, a prayer form to which all of us are called.

Today, ask the Lord to keep you quiet enough interiorly so that you might be startled by the God who is always with us.

Do you have a special devotion that helps you pray everyday?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Asking for Help

“Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” (Lk 11:9)

Being unafraid to ask others for help is an important lesson in humility, and a sure sign that we have not become so arrogant that we live as if we don’t need others. Nevertheless, it is difficult for most people in individualistic societies like the United States to ask for help, and those who do are often looked down upon. Homeless street people may be shown pity and helped, but they are seldom respected as human beings, and it is the rare person who engages them in conversation about their lives.

I am not na├»ve or idealistic about all of this. For many years, I worked with and came to love Boston’s street people who found their way to the Shattuck hospital. Some of them were so full of fear that they could not say a word to you in greeting. Others were unable to stop talking. Most of the time and with most of the residents at the Shattuck, I had a passing relationship. They came to expect me to lead them in worship on Sunday mornings and were happy to be a part of a praying community. After mass we would mingle for a while, exchange pleasantries and grow in trust. Eventually, some would gain enough confidence to ask for the sacrament of reconciliation, but they were the exception.

Nevertheless, all of them seemed to understand me and be grateful when I would insist that there were no prostitutes at the Shattuck. There were women and men who had prostituted themselves, but they were people with real identities and names. The same was true of those who were addicted to drugs and alcohol. They were not alcoholics and drug addicts. They were people with raging addictions. It was important for the patients at the Shattuck to hear this, more than once. Most of them had been through two or three recovery programs and were giving up on themselves. As soon as they began to think of themselves as drug addicts rather than persons, they were on their way back to the streets without hope and looking for a fix.

The same is true for all of us. Being needy is a not a fault or a sin. It is the human condition, and St Paul reminds us often to remember that we are the body of Christ. In Romans, 1 Corinthians, Colossians and Ephesians, he returns to the image of the body of Christ, and insists that a body is made up of many parts, all of which have dignity. Further, when a part of our body is under stress it is natural for the rest of the body to come to its aid. An injury or infection is not perceived by the body as sinful, but sick, and as Jesus reminds us, it is the sick that need a physician.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help today. Allowing someone else to help you may be the grace they need to free themselves from self absorption and sin.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Jonah's Rage

“But the LORD asked (Jonah), "Have you reason to be angry?"

God’s question to Jonah is stark, direct and demanding. It could be addressed to any of us. Put another way, God says: Are you angry with me for forgiving people? Have you been so hurt by another’s sin that you cannot, will not let go? Clearly, Jonah did not expect the people of Nineveh to listen to him or God when he walked through their city demanding repentance. When they listen and repent, he wonders about their sincerity. His caution is such that he will not allow himself near those who sin or the God who forgives. How awful, but how ordinary

Unresolved anger can be a terrible cancer in our families, churches and world. Although understandable, Jonah’s anger is unacceptable. Jonah holds onto the awful memory of the armies of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, destroying Jerusalem. As long he clings to his anger, he cannot imagine anyone, even God, forgiving. Unfortunately, when this kind of anger takes root in us and remains unaddressed in our families and churches it becomes like a resistant weed that we tear off on the surface, but fail to dig deeper to remove the roots.Think, for instance, about the rage some continue to hold against Muslims everywhere after the terrorist attacks on our country.

More personally, I have often been asked to intercede in a family dispute that has endured for years. Even those involved cannot recall the exact details of the argument or event that drove a wedge into their family’s heart, but everyone keeps waiting for the other person to make the first move in reconciliation. When no one offers a hand of forgiveness, the hurt becomes like a rock everyone carries around their necks.

This kind of anger can also be directed at God. The early death of a beloved parent, the loss of a close friendship or even the state of the world, hurts so much that we simmer with resentment and hurt. Anger can roar at almost anything, but God is a very convenient target, especially since our faith tells us that God created the world and is all powerful. If God is so strong, we wonder, why does he allow us to bear such painful burdens?

The answer to all of these situations, of course, is found in Jesus. If God did not spare his own son the suffering of the garden, the scourging at the pillar, and the ignominy of the cross, we know, even if we cannot understand, that we need to accept life as it comes and remain in God. Anger extended over a life time rots our spirits like a piece of fruit left too long off the vine. The single most important aspect of life in the Spirit is to remain connected to the vine who is Christ. This dimension of our spiritual lives necessarily involves forgiveness and letting go. Jonah could not do it. Can we?

Today ask God not just to free you from the entanglement and twisted thinking that is the result of unresolved anger, ask to be free of the buried memories that slowly kill us a day at a time

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

St. Francis

As children and young adults we are regularly imprinted with memories that mark us forever.  We see, for instance, how others treat the poor with compassion or dismiss them as lazy, and these experiences are like seeds that grow in us and form the basis for the critical decisions we make in our lives and lifestyles.

Something like this happened to St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast we celebrate today. Born into a merchant’s family, a new class of people that began to emerge after the year 1000 in Europe, Francis regularly traveled with his father to the cloth fairs of southern France where he encountered thousands of poor and homeless people who surrounded the great fairs begging. While most people could dismiss what they saw or patronize the poor as weak and lazy, Francis saw something else. At first, he did not know what he was feeling, but gradually he realized how awful he felt when he saw poor people, especially lepers. A seed of doubt about the dignity of the poor had been planted in his spirit, one that eventually would change him and his society forever.

Riding his horse one day, perhaps daydreaming, Francis came upon a leper. Compelled by grace he dismounted and kissed the leper and later exclaimed, “What before was bitter was turned into sweetness of body and soul.” Kissing the leper changed everything for Francis. The seed of discontent sowed in him at the cloth fairs of southern France was beginning to bear fruit. While others felt free to dismiss lepers as sinners and think of them as less than human, Francis, with a simple kiss, knew that he had become part of a new family. He would join the poor, the lepers, and the forgotten. He would take off the clothes his father gave him as a gift and don the garb on the poor as a pilgrim. His life and the life of those who eagerly followed him, would never be the same. All creation was holy, Francis proclaimed. Every person had dignity and the Gospel of simplicity, lived so powerfully in Jesus, was reborn for a new age.

Today we pause in joy and gratitude for the faith of St. Francis. Afraid, intimidated and resistive, he avoided God’s plan for more than 20 years, but eventually God won his heart and sent him forth as a herald of the great king and the dignity of the poor.

Pray that the seeds planted in you as a child will bear fruit for the good of the world. If this means rejecting the values that blinded you to the needs of others or letting the glory of God flower in you as you remember a compassionate, understanding and giving grandparent, let it be. Give God access to your heart and let God do God’s work.