Saturday, September 24, 2011

Listening Heals

“Pay attention to what I am telling you.” (Lk 9:44)

Paying attention to others, especially when they speak, is a simple act of courtesy that every person deserves, especially children and the elderly. Nevertheless, for any number of reasons, we often fail in this regard. We are busy, distracted, and anxious or have a cluttered mind or schedule. Unfortunately, because children and the aging have less to distract them, they notice when we are not listening, and while they may not say anything, they are often hurt and confused by our failure to be fully present to them.

I wonder if it was like this for Jesus when his apostles failed to listen to him. No doubt they were sometimes afraid or confused about what he was saying, especially when he told them he would suffer, but the Lord was not asking them to understand everything he said, he was simply asking them to listen. Like us, they could walk away, and many did, especially when he spoke about his flesh as real food, but that was not the point. (Cf Jn 6) Listening to him was.

The Venerable Solanus Casey, a Capuchin friar who died more than 60 years ago, and whose cause for sainthood has already begun, was best known for his ability to listen to others with compassion. Each day at the Capuchin friary in Detroit, Michigan, people would line up for an opportunity to speak with him. Some wanted him to intercede with God to cure them. Others wanted prayers for a job. Most simply wanted to be with him for he was said to have a calming effect on people. As is often said about the people who go to Lourdes, they might not all be cured, but all of them are healed. Solanus Casey healed people by listening with openness of spirit and compassion to all those who came to the friary, and his gentle listening reminded people that God listens, too, and will never abandon us. Perhaps that is why more than 20,000 people came to his wake and funeral.

Today, try listening to someone intentionally. Ask God for the grace to be still and to be attentive to the other with reverence and patience. Don’t ask for the right answers. If that kind of response is necessary it will come. Rather, ask for the ability not to run away from another’s struggle and the courage to walk with them in silence.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Padre Pio

"But who do you say that I am?" Lk 9:20

One of the most important and uncomfortable steps in the spiritual life is letting go of the ideas and practices with which we grew up.  As a child I was taught, or believed, that morning prayers, prayers before class in the parochial school, meal prayers and night prayers were all I needed to learn and do as a good Catholic boy.  Of course, I was also expected to go to Mass on Sunday, confess my sins most Saturday's (as long as I could avoid Fr. D who was loud and harsh!), and learn to serve mass. But none of  these practices were my prayers. They were obligations  I had to fulfill, not celebrations to enjoy.  To be a catholic, I thought, was to wait upon God's grace and be thankful when it came.  I went to mass, waited for the priest's word to which I would respond and waited for his absolution, all actions done to me, not something I initiated.

Of course, these practices and my attitude were supposed to change as I grew into adulthood, but it was difficult.  Becoming responsible for myself, not just in the prayers I spoke or recited, but for finding time to pray quietly and entering more deeply into the mystery of God's love was a stressful transition.  Like most of us, I imagine, I preferred that mother church prepare and serve the evening meal, and I would eat gratefully and joyfully.  But the church pushed me, especially after the Second Vatican Council, to learn how to cook, to take responsibility for feeding myself and others.  It was difficult, and sometimes still is but clearly it is our personal responsibility to gather with other people of faith, reflect on the scriptures and mysteries of the church, and live an active and responsible Catholic life. We are not called to be passive recipients of grace, but active players in the mystery of salvation.

Today I want to suggest that Jesus' question to the disciples was hard for them to hear.  Jesus asks them who they think he is, but, I suspect, they wanted and expected him to tell them.  They would receive, respond and react to Jesus as he led them into Jerusalem. They were happy to be his foot soldiers and do the grunt work, but he would be the general and give the orders.  Nevertheless, perhaps out of his own anxiety, Peter responds quickly that Jesus is the Christ of God,  only to have his answer met with a rebuke not to speak too quickly for as yet he did not understand that the Lord would have to suffer much and would call upon him to bear heavy burdens. 

The joy in all of this is that, over time,  Jesus slowly revealed to Peter, his disciples (and us) the fullness of his identity and role, which allowed them to grow in responsibility, understanding and strength. Slowly they would not only understand but become the body of Christ on earth,  the hands and feet, the eyes and ears of Christ for others.  Most probably the disciples could not have even imagined this when they were new in the service of God, but it is clearly what they and we are challenged to be.

Letting go of the God who will do everything and allowing the Lord to shape us into the body of Christ on earth is not something that happens passively.  We don't simply sit and wait for God to act upon us. Rather, we are expected to be active participants in the life of God on earth.  Like all changes, this is not easy, but the Lord himself reminds us that "for human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible," (Mt 19:6), even that a camel could pass through the eye of needle. Don't be afraid.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Rebuiling the Temple, the Body of Christ

“Is it time for you to dwell in your own paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” (Haggai 1:4)

Losing track of our priorities as a country and a church is very dangerous. When we forget to pause for Sabbath time, not just on Sundays but each day, when we become obsessed with our own security or wealth, when we fail to honor the importance of family by encouraging 80 hour work weeks, we have lost our way.

In today’s reading, the prophet Haggai is concerned that the people of Judah have forgotten their priorities and lost their way. No longer in exile, they have begun to rebuild their own lives and homes, but have neglected the symbol of God’s presence among them by leaving the temple in ruins. Haggai reminds the people that the temple is a symbol of their religious and communal health, and it is a mess.

Looking at the church in the United States today one has to wonder whether we have lost our way. While it may only be anecdotal evidence, it seems apparent to me that fewer and fewer young people find their way to church each week. With the exception of those few who have the great benefit of a weekend retreat designed for teenagers and young adults, neither do they think of themselves as disciples. How will the church survive in the United States in the 21st century if it is not more successful at attracting and convincing young people that a life of religious practice is not only demanded by gospel, it will enrich their everyday lives?

Furthermore, why would we rebuild old churches or build new ones if there are so few inclined to join? While these can sound like ominous, even negative, questions, they are offered not to alarm, but to alert. Just as Haggai reminded the leaders of his day about their obligation to rebuild the temple as a sign of God’s enduring presence and love, we need to remind each other about the need to rebuild the church, the Body of Christ, in the United States as a community of believers who are committed both to announcing the gospel to those who have lost hope, and living the gospel among those who have never heard it.

Today, pray that God will raise up young leaders among us who are determined to let their generation know the God who loves them unconditionally and committed to restoring the health of the Body of Christ.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Tax Collector, Matthew

"He heard this and said, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” (Mt 9:12-13) 

When the leaders of the Jewish community challenged Jesus about eating with tax collectors, his answer was clear and straightforward. While acknowledging that tax collectors were sick, he reminded his listeners that sick people need help. Implied, of course, is that if we deny our own sinfulness we are like the fellow who sees the splinter in everyone else's eye but ignores the beam in his own. If the Pharisees did not want to admit their own faults, they would have no need of God's help. Our first spiritual task is always to acknowledge our own faults, ask for God's mercy and accept it with joy when it comes. 

In biblical times, tax collectors were hated. Not only were most of them Jews who worked for the Roman occupiers, they often charged more than necessary if they thought they could get away with it. More often than not, therefore, they would prey on the poor and the illiterate who were unable to calculate their own taxes. Men who took advantage of the poor were despised by Jesus, but if they showed a willingness to let go of their evil ways, Jesus, the merciful physician, would heal them.

St Matthew, whose feast we celebrate today, was a tax collector, but Jesus saw something in him, even as he sat at his tax collector's table, that made Jesus choose him as an apostle. St Bede the Venerable, a doctor of the church who wrote in the 8th century, suggests that Jesus saw something in Matthew that others missed because he looked at him with merciful eyes. The same can be true for us as long as we don't hide. Because our pride often gets in the way of admitting our wrongs, we choose not to be transparent and humble before God and so cheat ourselves of God's mercy. 

Today, imagine yourself sitting quietly at your own "tax collectors table," and pray for the grace not to be so concerned with your own security that you miss the Lord's invitation to let go and follow him.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Email subscibe

Dear Blog Readers,

Today I spent two hours trying to fix the problem with getting this blog in your email each day.  I am not sure I have succeeded.

In any case, a friend made another suggestion.  Go to Highlight  and copy it.  Then go to your desktop and right click.  You will see in the menu the word NEW. Click it. Then click SHORTCUT.

When the box opens paste into it and give it a name.  This will allow you to click on this shortcut anytime and reach the newest blog post.

Hope this helps.

The Korean Martyrs

“My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it.” Lk 8:21

Today’s gospel text can turn our heads. Is Jesus disrespecting his mother and family by reminding his listeners that everyone who hears the word of God and acts on it is his family? Surely not, but the gospel makes us stop and reflect. While blood relationships are important and foundational for many Christians, they are not the only source of faith transmission. Sometimes, a leaflet handed out on a street, a bible in a hotel room or an act of kindness from an unexpected source can be the stimulus for someone thinking about God, faith and their own conversion. When we hear the word of God and act on it wonderful things can happen.

When Blessed John Paul II visited Korea in 1984 one of the highlights of his pilgrimage was the canonization of 100 Koreans, all of whom were martyrs. At the canonization, John Paul reminded those attending of a remarkable fact about the Korean church. “The Korean Church is unique because it was founded entirely by lay people,” something which still startles us, especially when we realize that the 4000 Korean Christians discovered by a Chinese priest around 1777 began their journey because of some Christian literature given to them by visiting Chinese soldiers. (1) The 4000 Christians had never met a priest or celebrated the Eucharist. Rather, the almost random act of leaving behind Christian literature was a seed that produced 4000 men and women Christians. Imagine their joy when they were finally baptized and celebrated the Eucharist.

We can proclaim the gospel in an almost infinite variety of ways, but it has to be intentional. Not all of us will be called to preach from a pulpit or on a retreat, but all are challenged to preach with deeds. Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick and imprisoned and clothe the naked. (Mt 25) These simple but essential Christian tasks mark us as believers and proclaimers of good news.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Lights on Lampstands

“No one who lights a lamp conceals it with a vessel or sets it under a bed; rather, he places it on a lampstand so that those who enter may see the light.” (Lk 8:16)

Today we have an opportunity to reflect on one of the most accessible images in the entire gospel. The word Light appears almost 100 times in the New Testament. Not only are we encouraged to light a lamp and put it someplace so that others can see, the gospel also calls Jesus the light of the world and reminds us that John the Baptist was the light who prepared the world for Jesus' coming. 

Electricity has become so natural and so accessible to life as we know it that we often take it for granted. Recently, after Hurricane Irene swept through the Northeast of the United States, millions of people were left without electricity. However, almost everyone with whom I spoke simply said we have no light. Living without light was not only difficult, for some it was dangerous.  Not having light, especially at night, made life for the elderly and disabled dangerous. Not able to see where they were going or get out of their homes easily, they felt frightened and trapped. 

When Jesus tells his contemporaries to light a light and put in on a lampstand so that people can see, all of us who were without light for a few days knew exactly what he meant. In our friary we were fortunate to have a small generator which allowed us to run one refrigerator off a power strip, and one light which we put in the middle of the dining room table.  That one light changed everything.  Though we had no electricity in our rooms, we did have the ability to gather in the evening, share a meal and then move the light to our living room and enjoy one anothers company. For those few days we understood the gospel command to light a lamp and put it on a lampstand much better.

In Jesus time, oil was used in lamps and it was expensive. The poor especially understood Jesus’ advice to use the little oil they had wisely.  Put the oil lamp someplace where it would make it possible for everyone to see, otherwise too many people would be living in darkness. Of course, Jesus is talking about more than physical light. The gospel wants us to be light for one another, not so much to instruct others or tell them what to do or think, but to help them see the light within themselves and become light for others. When we let the light of our faith shine, especially in acts of charity and justice, we make it possible for people to know the Christ who lives within and among us.

Today, take a moment to thank God for all those who have been light for you, especially when the dark threatened to overwhelm you.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Living in the Present Moment

"Seek the LORD while he may be found, call him while he is near." (Is 55:6)

Staying in the day, staying in the moment is an important spiritual practice. Being alert to everything happening around us, without trying to control or manipulate our environment is a contemplative exercise that can serve us well in everyday life. More important, if we fail to pay attention to each day, we run the risk of getting trapped in the past or day dreaming about the future, an activity that diminishes our acceptance of each day and often damages our relationships. 

Today’s first reading from Isaiah is strong in this regard, reminding us to seek the Lord now, to call upon the Lord now while he is near. Most of us, because we are easily distracted, miss opportunities for intimacy and new hope. There’s a story, alledgedly about St Bernard of Clairvaux, but told in many religious traditions, that makes this point well. St Bernard was riding his horse one day and was stopped by a farmer. “I envy you,” the farmer said, “for being able to ride that beautiful horse and say your prayers. It’s a lot easier than my lot in life. I have to work so much there is no time for prayer.” Bernard paused and said, “Prayer is hard work. But if you really think it is easier to pray than work, I’ll make you a deal. If you can pray the Our Father once without distraction, I will give you my horse.” The farmer smiled, assured Bernard that it would be easy for him, and began. “Our Father who art in heaven….Do I get the saddle, too.”

Many think that a life of prayer and reflection would be easy, especially if they lived in a monastery and had four or five periods of prayer together each day. In fact, prayer is hard work as St. Bernard insisted. Learning to let go of all of our distractions is the first step in attending to what is happening right in front of us and the foundation of a healthy prayer life.

Try praying an Our Father without distraction today. Listen to the words. Make them your own and see which sentiment causes you to pause in gratitude or regret. As you let whatever catches your attention show its face, pause again and ask God to let you celebrate his presence now “while is he still near.”