Saturday, November 26, 2011

Letting go

"Be vigilant at all times." Lk 21:35

Today is the last day of the liturgical year. It is a good day for an examination of conscience.

Several years ago I was asked to help hear confessions in a Spanish speaking parish. Although the majority of the people were from the Dominican Republic and loved having me in the confessional since they realized that I struggled to understand them, a few were from Mexico and had been catechized in a way that touched me deeply.  Each of the Mexican penitents began: "Father, I confess that God is good and has given me faith. I confess that God has blessed me with a wonderful family, and I confess that I have friends who support me and love me."

Only after beginning with this non traditional formula of "confession" which immediately reminded me of St. Augustine's Confessions, did they begin to ask pardon for their sins, again with an unique introduction.  "So Father, because God is so good and has been so good to me, I have been ungrateful and these are the ways."  Honestly, I delighted each time a person catechized in this way came into the confessional, and have used the same formula myself when celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation.

Thinking about these men and women occasions fundamentally important questions for us as people of faith: Have we been grateful enough for God's presence, understanding, compassion and forgiveness?  Are we full of gratitude to the God who never sleeps, never forgets us, and is always ready to welcome us home? Are we more worried about avoiding sin than doing good and fostering the good news in our families, communities and churches??

Today, thank God for the year past, ask pardon and begin again as Advent dawns.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Nature's Secrets

"Consider the fig tree and all the other trees. When their buds burst open, you see for yourselves and know that summer is now near; in the same way, when you see these things happening, know that the Kingdom of God is near." Lk 21 29-30

Paying attention to nature is a simple path to insight and reflection.  Jesus often invites us into the mystery of God's ways in this manner.  Today it is the fig tree. Tomorrow it may be the farmer sowing his seed or the power of the sea in a storm.  Unfortunately, in a society as frantic as ours and as fascinated with technology, we often fail to appreciate the wonders of nature all around us, but we can change. For instance, we might consider intentionally shutting down our computers, cell phones, and  Ipads for half an hour a day, and take a slow walk. While it might be difficult to begin and stay faithful to a practice like this, eventually our bodies and spirits will yearn for the "breaks", the quiet times and the rest.

Life unfolds in patterned ways and cannot be rushed.  It takes nine months for a child to be born.  It often takes five years for an apple tree to produce fruit and those of us getting older know that we are very different people at 60 than we were at 20. The task for the Christian is to continue to enter life as it comes, not rushing or pushing, but accepting life on its terms, and attending to God's presence at every stage of life.

Today, wherever you are, pause for a few moments, breathe deeply a few times and look around you.  You might be amazed at the variety of ways God can speak.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving Day

"Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?" Lk 17:18

The feast of Thanksgiving is a time to return to the God who has so often healed us, to pause and remember all those who God has given us as companions in faith, who have accepted our faults and lifted up our strengths.  Honestly, if any of us began to name all of these people today, the list would stretch around the world. Today let us sing alleluia for friends and enemies who showed us God's face even when we were distracted by self absorption or lost in self pity.

We also thank God today for allowing us to play a small role in the healing of others.  Broken families, shattered marriages, lonely teenagers, desperate older people and the mentally ill, to name just a few, have all been given to us as gifts. Today we thank God especially for never thinking that the healing relationships we have been privileged to share with the lost have been our doing.  Most of the time the only thing we had to give others was time itself, and that was often enough, even more than enough.  Though most of us could never have imagined the path God would set us upon, today we acknowledge that all is grace, all is gratitude, and all is rooted in the unconditional love of God.

For most of us, it is only the gift of years that enables us to say that God has always been at the center of our lives even when we were "out of round", running around trying to save the world, or unwilling to hand ourselves over to God.  God never left us.  We often left God, and in the middle of our wandering, we frequently left friends behind and hurt more than a few. From those we have forgotten or taken for granted, we can only ask pardon and rely on God to heal them and help us change.

Today let us also give thanks for all the people we have met along the way who live totally other centered lives.  In every assignment of my religious life, I have met and been converted by powerful people of faith who walk gently on the earth and help others to do the same.  Some of the people God has sent my way have served as volunteers in the same hospitals, the same food pantries and the same shelters for half a century, but what is most remarkable about them is not their simple fidelity but the grace they still have to meet each new person in need with dignity, compassion and gratitude.  Everywhere I go those who have been privileged to serve the poor echo the same mantra: Those I have served have given me more than I could ever give them.

Today, find a quiet place, even if only for a minute, to breathe in gratitude for all God has given you and breathe out hope to those who find life an overwhelming burden.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

St Clement, Pope and Martyr

"The great cannot exist without the small; nor the small without the great. A certain organic unity binds all parts, so that each helps and is helped by all." St Clement to the Corinthians

The wisdom of Pope St Clement has a context.  There were disputes in the Church of Corinth about authority, and Clement, while reminding the Corinthians that that needed to accept the authority of the bishop and priests, also assured the entire church that everyone had a role in the community of faith.  Good governance was not simply a matter of a bishop deciding disputed questions, it required that bishops respect everyone in the church. Only when decisions taken by the church fostered unity among bishops, priests and people would everyone be helped.

The church, of course, fosters mutual respect not only as a path to good governance, but as a sign of Christ's presence in the assembly of believers.  Jesus prays that "all might be one," (Jn 17:22) so that the world will know that he was sent by God.  Real unity, not simply uniformity, is often an elusive goal in our lives.  It demands that we listen with respect and openness of spirit to those with whom we have difficulties or disagreements.  Sometimes the early church would encourage those who were separated by some dispute or sin to seek out witnesses to testify (Mt 18: 15-20) about what is separating people from one another and would promise a great gift to those who understood the importance of unity and worked to heal divisions. “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.  For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Mt: 18:19-20)

In recent years, a friend suggested, because unity is so important in the church and is a sign that Christ is presence among us, that I take another step when listening to people.  "Pray for them as they speak,"  she said.  "Pray that they will be able to articulate clearly what is bothering them.  Pray that you might be able to help them in doing what God wants of them."

Today, pray for unity in your families and communities, especially tomorrow when you gather for Thanksgiving.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

St Cecilia

St Cecilia, whose feast we celebrate today, is almost always portrayed with a musical instrument in her hands. Sometimes it is a viola or a flute; at other times she is seated at an organ, all because she is said to have heard beautiful music when she was forced to marry a pagan. Amazing really.  From a simple incident without a firm historical foundation, Cecilia is honored as the patron of liturgical music. Clearly, it is not Cecilia's demonstrated holiness that keeps her memory alive, although I have no doubt she was deeply committed to God, but the power of music that fills us with hope and joy, and helps deepen the faith that is the ground of our lives.

When I was a boy there was a wonderful choir in my home parish, and although as a child I did not always appreciate the beautiful music they made, my spirit remembers the pride of the adults who who sang in the choir and the joy of those who listened. At Christmas, our choir's  ministry was even richer since the men's and women's choirs combined at Midnight mass and at the principal mass of Christmas morning.  Our devoted choir was a sign that our parish was committed to God and was willing to sacrifice many hours of practice to help lift our hearts through music and song.

Perhaps Henry David Thoreau said it best. "When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the earliest times, and to the latest." Music not only reminds us how important our bodies and senses are in an incarnational spirituality, it helps us to express a love that is beyond words. 

Today, take a moment to celebrate all those music ministers who remind us with St Augustine that we pray twice when we sing. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Presentation of Mary

"He noticed a poor widow putting in two small coins...this poor widow...has offered her whole livelihood." Lk: 21: 2-4
The Feast of the Presentation of Mary is one that emerged from the imaginations and questions of the early church.  Knowing that Mary had to play a significant role in salvation history and anxious to demonstrate how she could have been a virgin in a world so committed to motherhood, the early church, especially in the East, began to celebrate the Presentation of Mary, a feast which suggested that Mary had been promised to God by her parents when she was only three years old.  From the time she was three, therefore, she would have been educated in the Torah and had the time and help to prepare herself to be the Theotokos, the mother of God.

Although 21st century people would not "play with history" in this way, our ancestors in faith often created scenarios that helped them understand the mysteries of faith.  Because their secular counterparts did the same thing with its kings and emperors, no one questioned this method.  Midrash, or the filling in of the untold story, as I have written before, was common in the ancient world and completely acceptable.  The church needed to explain Mary's knowledge of the scriptures and her total openness to God's will.  Thus, from the perspective of the early church, we can understand why some of the saints lived such exemplary lives and impacted their contemporaries in profound ways.

The same is true for the widow mentioned in today's Gospel.  How a woman without any means of support, could let go of the little she had to honor God is a powerful story of  faith.  Only the pure grace of God could help someone who had lost everything to act out of a faith so deep that it startles us even today.  So given to security and good stewardship, we often think of the the total abandonment of Mary and the widow who gives everything she has to the temple as exceptions, but they are not.  All of us are called to let go of everything that gives us security in order to demonstrate to the world that God is all powerful and will take care of us.  This does mean that we shouldn't be prudent with what we do have. It does mean that we should not cling to our possessions, our health, our property or our lives.

The feast of the Presentation of Mary asks all of us to examine our attitudes, our religious practices and our lifestyle.  It does not demand that we be foolish, but challenges us to trust God completely.

Today, made a simple examination of conscience.  Are you clinging to someone or something that does belong to you?