Saturday, October 29, 2011

God: The foundation of all that is good

"You will not become wise in your own estimation." Rom 11:25

"The one who humbles himself will be exalted." Lk 14:11

Pride is a terrible burden that we all carry. Inane and foolish arguments often begin with pride and separate us from one another and from the body of Christ. Men seem more prone to these kinds of destructive arguments than women, but no matter who begins the debate, it is pride that does not let us stop. Winning at games, in business and politics, and in relationships has become so important in our society that we often find ourselves unable to remember the issue about which we argued, but we all know the tightness in our stomachs and the headaches we've endured either because we began something we could not stop or were the object of another’s cruelty.

St. Paul works very hard in today's selection from Roman's to remind us that Jesus was not in competition with the leaders of the Jewish community. Neither is he trying to supplant the Torah nor undermine the authority of the Pharisees. Rather, he acts in such a way that any reasonable witness will be drawn to a fuller investigation of his deeds and claims. Unfortunately, the leaders of the Jewish community see him as a rival rather than a reformer and prophet. Their pride makes it impossible for them to engage in an honest conversation with Jesus. He is threatening their tenuous political power, and he must be stopped.

Luke's gospel addresses this same issue. The Pharisees feel entitled to the seats and positions of importance in civil affairs and at weddings. They enter a banquet hall or a home and expect deference. More important, they regularly dismiss others who are merely servants and often don't view them as persons, but slaves who are the property of other important leaders. There was no arguing with them or their interpretations of the law without serious consequences. Their pride and fear made them blind to everyday people yearning for redemption.

The scriptures today present us with a clear choice. Remember who we are, acknowledge God's sovereignty and stop berating others, or be judged harshly by God for our arrogance and pride. In order to accept life as it is we need to pray for a humility that is not self demeaning, but praises God in all things, especially for the gifts God has given us for the good of all and the building of God's reign.

Today, ask for the gift of humility that celebrates the wonder of God's life in every person and all creation.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Sts. Simon and Jude

“You are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” Eph 2:22

It is heartening to me to think about being built. As a friend often used to say, God isn’t finished with me yet. But Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is not just about me being built, formed and shaped into a sign of God's love. The apostle is talking about all of us together being built into a place and a community where God is alive and transparent. St. Paul wants us to realize that we are the stones of God's dwelling place, each with our own role and function as individuals, each of whom contributes to the whole.

For years, (perhaps centuries!), the most well known Capuchins were Porters, the brothers who answer the door in our friaries. Often, as was the case when I was boy, people would stop at the friary of Sacred Heart, in Yonkers, NY, just to chat with the Brother Rufin, a gentle and compassionate man. Rufin had the ability to listen to anyone, and although he rarely gave advice, people felt better for having spoken with him. Rufin had a very distinct and important role in our Capuchin “dwelling place.” He was the face of the friars, a man whose goodness encouraged everyone who came to the door to trust all the friars. If Rufin could be so kind, surely the other friars would also be welcoming to all, especially sinners. Although a number of the pastors assigned to Sacred Heart seemed to have a more important structural function in the parish and neighborhood, all of the friars were dependent on Rufin to set the welcoming tone that he offered so naturally, and it was Rufin's simple direct service that "opened the door" to the ministry of the other friars.

Today is a good day to think about your role in the church. Are you the quiet glue who keeps things together, the person working behind the scene making coffee, asking others to help with the clean up? Are you a lector charged with preparing the readings, especially for Sunday, so that all might not only hear but be transformed by the Word of God? Are you a home visitor or a community organizer? Are you home bound, called to be a quiet, unseen contemplative praying for those still active in the ministries of the church? While your particular role might not seem to be important, no parish, no church can function well without many hands working together and sharing the ministry that makes each community of faith hum with the vibrancy of the good news. Unfortunately, only when things fall apart do we realize fully how essential each person's individual role is to the life of the church as a whole!

Today, take a moment to pray in gratitude for your place in the church, and a second moment to thank God for all those whose unnoticed roles make your faith community such a vital sign of God's love.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Helpful Internet Sites

Today I edited my blog to include a few Internet sites that I visit regularly. You can find them in my favorite sites on the right side of the blog.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has a link to the Lectionary readings for each day of the year. Everyone would do well to visit it regularly, especially if you can't get to mass each day.

I also listed the Center for Liturgy at St. Louis University which has reflections and commentaries on the Sunday readings. I visit it every week at least.

And finally I added Catholics In Alliance for the Common Good, a site that always forces me to think globally before writing locally.

And for those of you interested in the Capuchin Friars of New York/New England you will find a link to the Province of Capuchins to which I belong. Please support us.

Can anything separate us from God's love?

"I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." Rom 8:39

Separation is often painful. Each year I have the privilege of teaching the lectionary to candidates for the Maryknoll Lay Mission Association. They are always a diverse group. One year there will be two or three families, the next mostly young people. A third year will have retired couples preparing for mission service in a country far from home. I never fail to enjoy teaching these women and men, but neither do I forget they are preparing to be separated from their families and friends for three years or more. While full of hope and dreams of discovering new ways to proclaim the Gospel, these men and women are also leaving home and its securities, and will have some difficult days adjusting to a new culture and all it entails.

I wonder if Paul felt the separation from his family and friends in Jerusalem when he embarked on his missionary journeys. We know he spoke often and bravely about the challenge God set before him, but I wonder how much of his language is posturing, trying to convince himself that he was not alone.

Nevertheless, the reading from Romans today lifts us up. If we are separated from everyone and everything we know, we are not separated from the love of God in Christ. Cling to this memory, Paul urges us, especially when it seems like everyone and everything around you is collapsing. Surely, it was this memory that kept Paul focused on the power of God’s transforming love.

In second Corinthians Paul admits that he is boasting, but lists all of the trials he has suffered in order to assure those who will follow him that nothing can separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Listen.
I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.
And in all of this Paul insists it was the realization that he was doing God's will that sustained him and reminded him that nothing could separate him from the love of God.

Today, if you are separated from friends and family not just by geography, but by unresolved conflicts and unhealed hurts, pray for the grace to remember that no matter how stressful life might be, you are never far from the God who will not, cannot, stop loving you.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Silent Prayer

“We do not know how to pray as we ought.” Rom 8:27

Prayer confounds many of us. It is one thing to recite prayers we learned in childhood, make a novena to the Blessed Mother or pray the rosary. It is altogether a different matter to learn how to sit quietly, breathe deeply and ask God to make you prayerfully attentive to the God who is always among us, and the ground of our life. Whenever we are confronted with difficult circumstances, a friend in need or a sick relative, we often find ourselves either trying too hard to say the right thing or not being able to say anything to those awaiting our insight or reflection.

St. Paul is so alert to this difficulty that he reminds us that when we don't know what to say, “the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groaning,” for us. For those who have been shocked by the sudden death of a friend or relative, or hear news of entire villages being swept away in a tsunami, groaning is all we can do, and our groaning is almost always involuntary. Think for a moment when you were with a group of people and someone announced that there had been a tragic accident in the community. Recall the audible gasp that emerged from the group spontaneously. A gasp or groan is the first prayer that we utter in situations like this. There are no words to express our upset and shock. We fall silent, and sometimes cry, groan, even sob. The inarticulate groan is the only prayer we can offer in deep sadness, but it is not the only prayer that is inarticulate.

I remember when I heard about the birth of my first niece Lori. I walked around with a smile on my face for days. My sister and brother in law had had a child and I was an uncle. In those days, the Capuchin friars where much stricter about travel to family celebrations and I was not able to see Lori right away, but within a week my sister had sent along pictures which I eagerly looked over and passed around to the other student friars. The excitement and delight I felt for my sister and brother in law and for my entire family was a prayer. Only later did I put these feelings into words. In the beginning there were no words. Another generation of my family had begun and it was wonderful.

Sometimes we try too hard to pray, to express how we are feeling. Most of the time words are unnecessary. We have only to place ourselves in God's presence, breathe deeply and welcome whatever is happening in our lives. As Meister Eckhart teaches, the language of God is Silence. Whether we are hurt, angry, confused, joyful, happy or peace filled does not matter. Welcoming whatever emerges in us and letting go into the silence is the only prayer necessary.

Today, hand your life over to God in silence and let the handing over itself be your prayer.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Labor Pains

"We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies." (Rom 8 22-23)

I wonder if St. Paul actually heard a woman groaning in labor. Was he married for a short time? Did he hear his sisters or cousins when they were in labor? However Paul came to it, his use of the image of a groaning woman in labor is powerful and helps us understand the yearning and struggle Paul experienced to give birth to the new life of Christ within him. Groaning is an image we can not only imagine but hear. I have often heard women speak of the desperation they felt when they thought their labor would never end, and I regularly hear women "groan" about the failure of our church to hear their voices and unique understanding of the mysteries of faith.

Last night I had the delightful duty of speaking at the University of Connecticut. It was wonderful to have so many students attend the lecture, but it also gave me pause. More than half the college students who came to the lecture were women and I kept wondering what they might say if they had an opportunity to address the audience last night. Surely some of them would be able to speak to the image of a woman in labor, and so many other issues unique to the experience of women, more authentically than I or any of the men attending. Unfortunately, women are not allowed to preach at Mass, but I would hope more parishes would not only make time available after communion for women to offer reflections about the mysteries of faith as they experience them as women, but take advantage of other opportunities for women to address church groups as women.

Pope Benedict XVI, recognizing that women are too often marginalized in our society and church, also encourages us to listen to the voices of women more intentionally. Before he was Pope, Benedict, reminding his listeners of the important contributions of women to the history of theology and spirituality, presented a fascinating lecture on St Bridget of Sweden in which he reminds his listeners that history is full of women saints, mystics and theologians about whom we have heard little. As Cardinal Ratzinger he wrote:
Bridget inserts herself in the great context of medieval 'female thelogy', which begins in the twelfth century with Elizabeth of Schönau and Hildegard of Bingen, continues in Germany in the thirteenth century with Mechtild of Magdebourg, Mechtild of Hackeborn and Gertrude the Great, while in Italy at about the same time Clare of Assisi gives new brilliance to the faith. She is followed by Margherita of Cortona and Angela of Foligno, and after Saint Bridget, mention must be made of Catherine of Siena. England contributes Julian of Norwich, and in this way we would continue with other names up to the great Saint Teresa of Avila.
Reading Pope Benedict's remarks I was struck by how little I know about some of the women he mentions or their writing. How sad for me and us.

Today ask yourself whether you regularly listen to women's experience and insight about matters of faith. Then take a moment to pray in gratitude for a women whose wisdom and insight helped shape your life, thought and spirituality.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Standing tall

“And a woman was there who for eighteen years had been crippled by a spirit; she was bent over, completely incapable of standing erect.” Lk 13:11

Every time I read this passage, I think of my mother. In the last years of her life mom had dozens of spinal fractures, all of which caused her pain and difficulty in standing erect. A back brace helped, but often she would have to sit or lie down to get any relief. At the same time, her spinal osteoporosis did not slow her down. Mom was too interested in life to let something as simple as back pain stop her.

The woman in today’s passage from the gospel of Luke seems much like mom. Despite being bent over, she is in the synagogue listening, learning, and hoping. No doubt some judged her and thought she was possessed by an evil spirit, but she was not deterred. Like so many others who had heard about Jesus she wanted to be near him, and perhaps even be healed. Imagine her joy when the Lord said to her, “Woman, you are set free of your infirmity.” Lk 13:12 I can imagine her walking out of the synagogue after 18 years standing very tall, looking all in the eye and asking everyone she saw what they thought of her now.

But the leader of the synagogue doesn’t care about the bent over woman at all. Rather, he senses an opportunity to discredit Jesus and pounces on the crowd saying, “There are six days when work should be done. Come on those days to be cured, not on the Sabbath day.” Lk 13:14 How this man could reduce Jesus’ healing power to “work” is incomprehensible to us reading 2000 years after the event. A woman, broken for 18 years, is standing erect and free again, but he can only see a violation of the Sabbath.

The role reversal is complete. Although the synagogue leader seems to be standing erect, in fact he has become the bent over woman. Unable to look anyone in the eye, seeing only the dark side of life, he tries to parse the law in a way that undermines the compassion of Jesus. That Jesus chose to “save the woman’s life”; a perfectly sane and acceptable interpretation of the Torah, by allowing her to stand erect again made perfect sense to everyone present but not to the leader of the synagogue. How sad for him.

The lesson for us is clear. Stand erect. Look around you at the glory of God. Reach out for those who are broken. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Do whatever it takes to save lives for the sake of the Gospel.

Today, ask to see clearly whatever or whomever is in front of you. And pray not to look away from the needy, but to help those bent over by poverty, sin or despair.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Greatest Commandment

"Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" Mt 22:36

One of the tasks of the great Rabbis was to reduce the entire law and prophets to as few words as possible without losing the power and love of the entire Torah. Today’s gospel is Jesus’ response. In just a few words he sums up the entire law and prophets. Although other rabbis suggested answers similar to Jesus’, Jesus’ is unique in two ways. First, no other rabbi suggests that love of God and love of neighbor are equally important. Love of God is not enough by itself. Neither is love of neighbor sufficient without love of God. Prior to Jesus, the rabbis talked about certain prescriptions of the law as heavy or light. Love of neighbor, while important, was considered light, while love of God was considered heavy. Jesus tells his listeners that both love of God and love of neighbor are heavy, that is, vitally important aspects of the good news.

Jesus also challenges the traditional rabbinic understanding of neighbor. The rabbis taught that other Israelites deserved our love as neighbors. Those outside the covenant deserved compassion but not love. Jesus rejects this understanding and makes his interpretation of the Torah overwhelmingly open. The good news is for all. There are no outsiders In God's love, which remains the challenge for us today. Everyone has a right to our love as a neighbor, not just our compassion. How we live this command is the heart of the gospel.

Today is also Mission Sunday. The word mission is from the Latin verb meaning to send. We are all sent into the world as missionaries to proclaim God’s good news in Jesus. Today’s reading suggests that this task is simple, but powerful. We are to go into the world in such a way that all can sense in us the openness of Jesus. We are to greet all with love as our neighbors, and because this greeting is rooted in the unconditional and unquenchable love of God, we are compelled to offer this gift to all. In a simple form we might say: There is always more where that came from. Jesus is the flowing water of salvation, the bread of life, the light of the world. How glad we are to offer his loving mercy to all.

Today, ask God for the gift of knowing deep in your heart that God is always with you. Ask also to share this love freely and without fear.