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Saturday, March 10, 2018

Transparent Prayer

“Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity...But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’" Lk 18: 10-12

Lent is a time when many people commit themselves to develop a richer prayer life. Some say the rosary more often and more devotionally. Others try to get to mass a couple of times a week. A few ask for the grace to sit quietly in the presence of God without words, and still others try something new: centering prayer, lectio divina or mindfulness prayer. While all of these are praiseworthy, they might lead to a silly pride if we are faithful to them and think it is our doing. In fact, all prayer is a gift from God which we need to ask for often. More important, we need to be ready for distractions and not worry about our success. Prayer is about being faithful, not successful.

The tax collector in today's Gospel helps us understand this clearly. So does Pope Francis in the revealing interview he gave to Jesuit publications around the world. When asked who is Jorge Bergoglio, the Pope answered simply and truthfully. "I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner." Echoing the tax collector in Luke's gospel, who asked for God's mercy because he was a sinner, the Holy Father reminded all his readers that before all else he was a stumbling child of God who needed God's kindness on a daily basis.

We don't expect these kinds of sentiments from our leaders, and when we hear them, we often question their sincerity, but not in the case of Pope Francis. This man presents himself to the world with such sincerity, honesty and humility that we are drawn to him and to the Christ who he claims as Lord and Savior. More, he is setting an example for all believers. Acknowledging first that we are sinners situates us in every circumstance as a church of compassion. Accepting our own faults, we walk with other sinners on the road to eternal life.

Today, be honest at prayer. Tell God how much help you need.

What does authentic humility mean to you as a person of faith?

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Holiest People I Know

"You are not far from the Kingdom of God." Mk 12:34

When one of the scribes is able to appreciate Jesus' wisdom and agree with the Lord that to love God completely and our neighbors as ourselves is the essence of the law, Jesus tells him that he is not far from the reign of God. It seems like a strange compliment, until we realize that while the scribes were likely to know the law and prophets well, they were often more interested in getting the law "right" than living the law well.

Last year I was speaking with a priest friend about the saints we have known. Almost all of them were lay people. It was not that we were discounting the holiness of priests and religious we knew, but were clearly more touched and challenged by the integrity and faith we encountered in the people we had been sent to serve. Not incidentally, the people we both knew were not scholars, but parents, husbands and wives and grandparents. What they shared in common was their fidelity in the face of very long odds. They had faced sickness, death, and poverty with courage and honesty. They did not whine about how God had dealt them a poor hand, but were grateful for God who had accompanied them in their struggles.

Jesus was tough on the Scribe, not because he lacked insight, but because he seemed only to know the law but said nothing about living it. He will be hard on us for the same reasons. In Lent we try to recommit ourselves to prayer, almsgiving and fasting because they are practices that out the law into action in our lives.

Today, ask yourself if are more interested in being theologically correct than transparently faith filled.

Who is the holiest person you know? Why

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Living Through Life's Transitions

“Ephphatha!' (that is, 'Be opened!') And immediately the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly." Mk 7:34-35

So many aspects of life need to be opened over and over in our lives. We need to have open spirits, open hearts and open minds. Without a life open to God and God's direction, we risk missing the voice of the Spirit who Christ promised us would always be present within and among us. Remaining open to God's Spirit can be especially troubling when we are in pain.

An older friend has remained engaged in life by reading. She reads the newspaper everyday and a novel at least once a week. She also reads history and theology, but recently she has been grappling with vision problems. Almost immobile, my friend is struggling to understand and accept this new burden. The openness she has had her entire life, and which she so prized, is difficult to maintain. Though she knows that she can use her other senses to engage the world around her, her eyes have always been her primary path to enjoyment and conversation.

How we manage the transitions that life presents us is the measure of our faith. Walking with others in pain, reaching out to the hungry, and accepting the limitations that come to everyone, while seeming to close us off to what we have always known, in fact allows God to do God's work in and through us.

Today, open your heart to whatever God asks.

What are the most difficult transitions you have faced?

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Facing our Fears

“Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.” Mark 7:29

Communicable and deadly diseases always frighten us. So do demons. Before anyone knew that HIV/AIDS could not caught by a sneeze or sharing a soft drink, there was immense fear in people about something they did not know. People with AIDS were like demons. Even after it became clear that AIDS could only be spread by the exchange of body fluids through sexual contact, needle sharing and the very rare blood transfusion, people were very much afraid. Something as toxic as AIDS scares us and the same was true in the ancient world regarding people possessed by demons.

Even as Jesus listened to the desperate pleading of the Syrophoenician woman whose daughter was possessed by a demon, he tests her and insists that he has come as food for the Jews. But the woman is not deterred. Asking Jesus to think of her as a dog, she reminds him that even dogs can eat the scraps that fall from the master's table. When Jesus heals her daughter and frees her from the demons obsessing her, he challenged people then and now not to dismiss people because of their illness, sexual orientation, race or religious convictions.

Today, listen with your heart to someone from a different race or religion.

Do you know someone with the courage and fortitude of the Syrophoenician woman?

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Questioning the Law

"Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile." Mk 7:15

It must have been shocking and upsetting for the Pharisees and scribes to hear Jesus assert that only that which comes from within defiles a person. In fact, it is difficult for most of us to hear the great challenge of Jesus to put aside our desire to control ourselves and others with a rigid interpretation of the law. Jesus insists that salvation is not about discipline alone, but about asking God to cleanse our hearts of jealousy, resentment and suspicion of others.

More important still is whether we are willing to help others worry less about how they appear and more about the integrity of their faith lives. St Jerome says it well, "I bid you not to tear your garments but rather to rend your hearts which are laden with sin. Like wine skins, unless they have been cut open, they will burst of their own accord."(St Jerome on Joel)

Most believers know the truth of the gospel from the "inside." They realize that what appears to be a faith filled life is empty unless it reflects an interior commitment to live without guile. When each of us admits that a life of ritual rigidity and lawful integrity is hardly good news, we will begin to announce the gospel as Jesus did.

Today, don't be afraid of an honest self examination.

How do you resist an unhealthy dependence on the law as a substitute for gospel living?


Monday, March 5, 2018

St Paul Miki and Companions

“LORD, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below; you keep your covenant of mercy with your servants who are faithful to you with their whole heart." I Kgs 8:23

Sometimes, when we celebrate a saint's liturgical feast day, we forget who the companions were. This is a shame because it cheats us from celebrating everyday people. The twenty six companions of St. Paul Miki included people, the young and the old, from ever walk of life.
The twenty-six martyrs of Japan were crucified on a hill, now known as the Holy Mountain, overlooking Nagasaki. Among them were priests, brothers and laymen, Franciscans, Jesuits and members of the Secular Franciscan Order; there were catechists, doctors, simple artisans and servants, old men and innocent children—all united in a common faith and love for Jesus and his church. (Catholic Culture)
The history of our church is replete with a wonderful variety of saints and blesseds, all of whom deserve our admiration. If only we knew the stories of more ordinary people, not just bishops, priests and religious, we would understand more deeply how important it is to ask God to make us saints right where we are.

Today, pray to one of the lay men and women Japanese martyrs.

What qualities do you look for in saintly people?

Sunday, March 4, 2018

St Agatha

"Jesus Christ, Lord of all, you see my heart, you know my desires. Possess all that I am. I am your sheep: make me worthy to overcome the devil." St Agatha

We know almost nothing of St Agatha, but there is a fascinating legend that grew up around her. Because she refused the advances of a suitor who wanted her to marry him and forsake her Christianity, she was tortured and died professing her total commitment to Jesus and her willingness to let him possess her.

The word possession is a difficult one. Often used to speak of the action of the devil, we resist the notion of anyone possessing us. But possession can also be used by lovers to indicate their total willingness to be with one another. In fact, poets suggest that only mutual possession can free us to love without fear. Agatha, in love with her Lord, desires this kind of possession. Hopeful that Jesus will give her the strength she needs to resist anything or anyone that would undermine her faith, Agatha asks to be especially close to Jesus, as near as a sheep to her shepherd at night.

Saints like Agatha remind us to ask ourselves how close we want to be to anyone, much less to the Lord. Do we desire a kind of intimacy that helps us when we are weakest, when everything seems to be falling apart? Are we willing to sacrifice and risk all in order to be near the one who promises never to abandon us?

Today, ask the Lord to accept you as you are.

How do you react to the word possession?