Saturday, February 11, 2012


"There again was a great crowd without anything to eat." Mk 8:1

Hunger is a terrible teacher. When people are really hungry, even starving, it is very hard to listen, much less learn. Hunger, like anger or a chronic illness, gets in the way of everything else. Trying to teach hungry people is like trying to put one more ounce of water in a glass that is already full. There is simply no room. The water spills and is wasted. The same is true for hunger. No matter how skilled the teacher, when people are hungry new insights and knowledge are wasted. There is no room in the hungry person for anything new or transformative.

Jesus knew this about his teaching. The crowd had been with him for three days. They were fascinated by his preaching and by his power, but they were hungry, and Jesus suggests that if they were sent home they would faint along the way. How could they continue to listen and learn in such a state?

In many ways, we all know this truth. Not only when we are physically hungry, but when we are hungry for companionship, friendship and love, we can settle for almost anything, even though our minds know that our need is getting in the way of our good sense. Because we are so hungry, we can't listen to anything or anyone. Jesus knew this when he was preaching, and knows it still.

Today, don't be afraid to ask for the "bread of life" to feed you with good sense and hope.

Friday, February 10, 2012

St Scholastica

“I asked a favor of you and you refused. I asked it of God and he granted it.” St. Gregory the Great

Every year the office of readings brings a smile to my face. St. Scholastica, the twin sister of St. Benedict, knowing her death was near, asked Benedict to stay the night at her convent and allow their conversation about spiritual concerns to continue. Benedict, unwilling to break the monastic rule forbidding monks to sleep outside the monastery, refused. Scholastica prays, asking God to intervene. Suddenly, a fierce thunder storm breaks out. Benedict, (I think with a hint of smile) asks his sister what she has done and she responds, “I asked a favor of you and you refused. I asked it of God and he granted it.” Three days later Scholastica died.

Prayer is not intended to change the course of human events, but sometimes it helps, if not for its direct effectiveness, at least for its power to change us.  How important it is each day to stop, ask God to make us aware of his loving guidance and enter more deeply into his presence. Think about what happens to us each time we pause to remember the sick, the hungry, the homeless, the home bound, and those trapped inside countries at war. Prayer allows us, even forces us, to get outside out own worlds and concerns to allow the Spirit to lift us up, center us and strengthen us not to be afraid to let go of our own will and desires. Prayer may not cause a thunderstorm each day, but it lets God do God's work in and around us.

Today, don't be afraid to ask God to free you from rigid obligation and lead you into love.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Understanding is Hard Work

"Are even you likewise without understanding?" Mt 7:16

To really understand someone else is hard work. It is not something that happens naturally for most of us because it demands we listen more than we speak. In fact, I often wonder whether people listening to us across cultures and languages, who must pay attention to every word and gesture we use, understand us better than those with whom we speak every day.

This seems be the case for those who opposed Jesus and struggled against his growing power, but it is also true for his closest followers. No matter how often Jesus spoke, acted, and responded to those most in need, it was difficult for those around him to fully appreciate what he was saying or who he was. Whenever we live with another person every day or speak with them very often, we find ourselves not really listening, especially if we share their culture and religious tradition.

Jesus' disciples expected their teacher to fit their understanding of what an observant Jew and Rabbi was so that when he challenged the teaching of other rabbis about dietary and eating laws, they were confused. That Jesus was concerned more with whether they were growing closer to God, and not with whether they were observing this or that Rabbi's interpretation of the law, amazed them. Like the prophets before him, Jesus was forever demanding that his disciples review their lives and religious practices to determine if indeed the mystery of God's unconditional love was becoming the foundation of their lives. If it was, the law would take care of itself.  He demands no less of us.

Today, try to remember the last time you reviewed a religious practice or devotion in order to focus more clearly on union with God.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Silly arguments

"You disregard God's commandment but cling to human tradition." Mk 7:8

It is not uncommon, especially when we feel challenged, to become very defensive and argue about silly matters. Because I lived in Boston for the last nine years, I listened, via the Internet, to Boston sports radio the morning after the Super Bowl.  Most of the New England Patriot fans, trying to distract themselves from the sting of another loss to the New York Giants, were endlessly debating dropped passes and the coach's strategy at the end of the game allowing the Giants to score a touchdown. After listening for a few minutes, I smiled.  That could be me, I thought, if the Giants had lost.

Unfortunately, something like the agonized chatter I was listening to on the radio happened regularly to the Pharisees. Their intent was good. Because they wanted every Jew to imagine their tables at home as the table of the Lord, they taught that Jews ought to practice at home all the temple rules for washing and eating. What was intended to be a reminder while in the temple to honor God, became the norm for family living, and people's piety was judged by their willingness to conform to a particular practice. Whether the practice really helped them honor God in their homes became a secondary concern. Behaving like the Pharisees and other pious Jews was more important than placing God at the center of their faith lives.

When Jesus, therefore, challenged the leaders of the Jews not to abandon their responsibilities towards their parents and elders for the sake of conforming to a pious practice, he became the object of the Pharisees wrath, not because he loved God less, but because he disagreed with their interpretation of the law. We would do well to examine our consciences about matters like this. Are we arguing with others about matters of faith and religious practice for the sake of winning a debate, or honestly trying to draw closer to God?

Today, put aside silly arguments and listen with your heart to those with whom you diagree.

Monday, February 6, 2012

St Paul Miki and Companions

"I hope my blood will fall on my fellow men as a fruitful rain.” St Paul Miki

The above words were spoken by St Paul Miki as he was being crucified. Praying that his blood would be like rain for those yearning for something to give their faith growth is an unnerving but very powerful image.

Singing, as St Augustine promised, is praying twice and many have this experience. In recent months, as Roman Catholics in the English speaking world get used to the new translation in the Sacramentary, singing often helps by taking the emphasis away from the awkwardness of learning something new by helping us focus on an uplifting melody. Singing can also be a transforming experience.

A few weeks ago, I presided at the mass of Christian burial for a young man of 48 who had turned his life around, reembraced his faith, and in the process touched many lives. More than anything else, it was the music, sung by a wide variety of cantors, both young and old, that lifted the spirits of the mourners and helped us focus not on the pain of an early death, but on the quality of the life we were celebrating. Music and singing impact parts of the human spirit that words alone can never touch.

Today, sing your way through the struggle of dying to self and let your death be like rain on others lives.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

5th Sunday Ordinary Time

"Praise the Lord, who heals the brokenhearted." Ps 147

Having our hearts broken is pretty difficult to avoid if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable to life as it comes each day. Standing by with nothing to say to a young man or woman whose marriage has collapsed is painful and unnerving. Helping an older woman bury a beloved husband after 50 or 60 years of marriage is a privilege but a very painful one. Most difficult for me has been burying babies who live only a few weeks or years, and teenagers who take their own life. While the people who have had to endure this kind of suffering wonder if they will ever recover, the psalmist is clear: God heals the brokenhearted.

Job didn't know this when he said, "I shall never see happiness again."(Jb 7:7) His heart was broken and he did not know why. Though he had tried to live an upstanding life, even his best friends had no answers for him. It felt to him like God, who promised always to be his guide, had abandoned him. He had no answers and was hurt and angry. But Job, like all of us from time to time, had misinterpreted God's promise to be faithful. Job wanted God to see life as he saw it, and to reward him for living according to the dictates of the Torah, but God does not see life as we see it, and therein lies the rub.

God promises to be faithful, to walk with us, to guide us, but not to interfere in the normal course of human life. God is with us, not as a fixer of broken lives, but as a companion to the brokenhearted. Unfortunately, most of us want more than that, and when heartbreak comes, we are lost. Only when we realize that God is with us at the center of our emptiness and loss will we find enough light and strength to continue, and hear the words, "I am with you always, until the end of the age," (Mt 28:20)for what they actually say. God is with us always. We are not alone, and that must be enough.

Today, don't search for words to comfort a friend. Just be with them.