Saturday, August 27, 2011

St. Monica

“We were alone, conferring very intimately. Forgetting what lay in the past, and stretching out to what was ahead.” Confessions (Book 9, Chapter 10, vs. 23)

St Augustine’s Confessions always read to me like they were written last week or last year. Somehow his style and insight is always new, fresh and lively.  The passage we read today in the Office of Readings is both consoling and challenging.  Alone with his mother Monica, who knew she was near death; both Augustine and Monica exhibit a powerful Christian attitude. They want to put the past aside in order to focus on the future and its possibilities.  

And there was much in the past about which Monica and Augustine had to let go. Though raised as a Christian, Augustine got caught up with the Manicheans, a dualistic sect whose emphasis on wisdom rather than authority as a path to truth attracted him. At the same time, and by his own account, because he was so determined to impress his friends with his sexual exploits, Augustine did not exhibit much wisdom. He lived with a woman for thirteen years, who sadly is never named, and fathered a son with her.  

It was the thirteen years of her son's turning away from the practice of faith and his hedonistic lifestyle that gave Monica such heartache and caused her to pray so desperately for him. While it is to Augustine’s credit that he acknowledges the power of his mother’s prayers, it is Monica herself that we want to celebrate today.  Monica’s compassion and yearning for God do not allow her to blame her son, to berate him for his infidelity to the church, or to attack him for the hurt he caused her. Rather, she forgives and lets go of the past in order that both of them can go forward, she praising God in heaven, Augustine to fame as a bishop and renowned preacher.

What a witness Monica is for us today.  If there is anyone who, as our twelve step friends remind us, is "living in your head rent free," let go and pray for the strength to move forward with your own life.  Jesus refused to focus on his abandonment by his disciples, and begs his father with his last breath to forgive those who have tortured and killed him.  Monica, as Augustine so beautifully acknowledges in his Confessions, does the same thing.  She speaks intimately with her son, not about the past, but about what was ahead.  We would do well to follow her example.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Stay awake. (2)

"Since the bridegroom was long delayed, they all became drowsy and fell asleep." (Mt 25:5)

Today’s gospel has a very consoling verse for people like me and many older people.  Matthew writes that  the ten virgins "all became drowsy and fell asleep.”  Since I am an early to bed person, the thought of staying up very late waiting for “the bridegroom” to arrive and then dragging myself to a wedding banquet is not something I would look forward to.  Clearly the issue in this parable is not falling asleep; we all do that when we are tired.  Rather, the Lord wants us to be prepared with enough oil for our lamps to accompany the bridegroom  to the banquet whenever he arrives.

Being ready to serve God at all times is a constant theme of Matthew’s gospel, especially in its final chapters. Jesus, as he did in yesterday’s gospel, reminds us to stay awake, to be alert, and today he uses the parable of the ten virgins as a reminder for us to be prepared to meet the Lord every day, not just as a preparation for death, but in order to live the gospel fully.

Nevertheless, being prepared for the Lord, especially when we are tired and anxious, can be tedious and boring. It means doing the same thing day after day, often with little consolation. Perhaps that is why Rabbi David Kimchi, a late 12th century Jewish scholar, recorded this lovely story about the great sage, Rabbi Eliezer. "Turn to God one day before your death." Rabbi Eliezer said. But his disciples responded, "How can a man know the day of his death?" Eliezer answered them, "Therefore you should turn to God today, perhaps you may die tomorrow; thus every day will be employed in returning."  Kimchi on Isaiah 65:13.

Turning to God today in prayer and gratitude for all the gifts of creation and faith is one way we store “oil” so that even when we fall asleep, we will ready to greet the Lord with light and joy whenever he comes.  Mahatma Ghandi was reputed to have said, “If you do not find God in the next person you meet, it is a waste of time looking further.”  When we pray fervently and school ourselves in gratitude, we can be sure that we will recognize the Christ in every person, even our enemies.

Though the challenge of always being prepared can seem daunting, even overwhelming, we should not be afraid. Though all of us will regularly fail at living a full gospel life, if we have prepared ourselves for the inevitable breakdowns in our commitment, God will be waiting to greet us when we wake up again.  Pray and be grateful each day for the gift of faith.  Christ will do the rest.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Stay awake.

Staying awake and staying alert is often difficult.  We get cluttered with so many things to do, so many people to see, so much to read or write, that we seem always to be multitasking.  While some people will want to convince you that multitasking is a skill we all need to learn, I am not so sure it is a good and healthy practice for our spirits. 

For years I found myself coming to the end of the day, mostly satisfied, but very tired, and unable to tell you much about who I had seen, what I had done or more important, what and who I had missed.  A wise friend of mine, Fr. Bill Quirk, (RIP) long ago told me that if I was not having three epiphanies a day I should not be preaching.  At first, I thought Bill was teasing me, but after a moment I knew he was serious, and I knew that if I didn't slow down and pay more attention to everything and everyone around me as a gift from God,  my preaching would be shallow. 

Still I resisted Bill's advice. For years I claimed that because I was brought up in a city I didn’t have much of an appreciation for nature, but in truth I was more concerned with getting things done then having a contemplative spirit,  making me was fast sleep to God’s grandeur all around me.

Recently, while on retreat, I learned again about how important it is to “stay awake,” and pay attention.  In the first day or so of my retreat, as I entered more deeply into the silence, a quiet peace came over me.  The more quiet I became, internally and externally, the more alert I became to everything around me.  Each evening, because it was so hot and humid, I would take a walk in the neighborhood of the convent where I was making my retreat.  On each succeeding walk I noticed that I saw more, heard more, wondered more about everything and everyone I was passing.  While usually I try to power walk for some exercise, I was strolling, smelling the summer flowers, remembering my childhood neighborhood and simply enjoying the act of walking, and listening and seeing.  While I know that a retreat is a privileged time that we usually can’t replicate at home, slowing down and breathing deeply was the first step in staying awake for me. More, the silence fired my imagination and filled my spirit.

Are you rushing so fast and furiously that you are missing life in all its glory?  Are you pushing forward in order to avoid a painful situation in your life?  There’s a wonderful song by Chuck Girard that you might want to listen to today just for the delight of it. Click here to listen. (Slow down)

By the way, please feel free to comment on any of these posts.  Several of you have written directly to me about your insights.  Please feel free to share them with everyone by commenting on the blog itself.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Guilelessness and Transparency

"Here is a true child of Israel. There is no duplicity in him."  Jn 1:47

One of the most difficult challenges of contemporary life is transparency in our public lives.  Though everyone calls for it in politics, religion, and business, there seems to be little willingness to act. In recent years, however, Sean Cardinal O’Malley, OFM Cap., to the consternation of some, has published a complete financial report on the website of the Archdiocese of Boston.  Anyone wanting to know how much money the Archdiocese received and how much it spent only needs an internet connection to find out.  In my view, this is not only laudable but necessary. We need to learn from leaders like Cardinal O'Malley how to be transparent in the public arena.

Unfortunately, however, because our society has become so litigious, we have learned a kind of political correctness that does not serve the political process or our personal lives very well. People are afraid to be transparent for fear it will be held against them.  The result, of course, is that everyone walks around looking over their shoulders and the power of the gospel gets lost in a sometimes disingenuous flood of words. 

St. Bartholomew, whose feast we celebrate today, ought to be the patron of those seeking to speak clearly and directly.  Jesus recognized Bartholomew as a man without duplicity. Some translations say he is without guile.  Bartholomew says what he thinks and is honest about what he hears and sees. We need to seek the virtue of guilelessness in our daily lives, to be transparent about what the gospel demands of us and be willing to suffer the consequences of standing behind our beliefs.   

In the light of so much consternation about immigration in our country, for instance, a concern that is understandable especially when so many are out of work, we cannot allow ourselves to forget the challenge of Matthew 25:35-36:  “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” The word “stranger” is sometimes translated “alien”, and it is clear both in Jewish law and in Catholic history that it is not all right to refuse food, medical care or temporary housing to those in need whether they have legal status in this country or not. While the bishops of our country have been clear about this,(USCCB on immigration) we don't always hear it in our parishes.

Today we pray to and with Bartholomew that the Lord will help us grow in transparency and vulnerability, and that we might hear the words of Jesus: “Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid.” (Mt 14:27)