Saturday, March 29, 2014

Spiritual Blindness

"Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and said to him, 'Surely we are not also blind, are we?' Jesus said to them, 'If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.'" Jn 9 37-38

Jesus often speaks of spiritual blindness. He calls the Pharisees "Blind guides" and rails against them for failing to help the needy. He also cautions his disciples against spiritual blindness when they fail to trust that he can do what he claims. Even after providing enough bread to feed five thousand people, his disciples worry about where they will get food.  Disappointed, Jesus challenges his followers to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees which tuns them inward on themselves, and makse them blind to the needs of everyday people.

All of us have a limited ability to see. It can be very difficult to understand (much less accept) people of different cultures, races and religious traditions. Their customs, language and values seem so very different from ours that we approach them tentatively and warily. This is unfortunate at best and disastrous at worst. When we fail to appreciate differences among people, we risk dismissing or attacking those who seem to challenge our values.

The diversity in the Catholic church is one of its greatest strengths and few helped us understand this better than Pope John Paul II. His willingness to travel widely and reach out for those on the margins of every society continue to remind us that Jesus saw beyond Jerusalem, and embraced anyone who opened themselves to God's word. When we push past our fears and resistance to engage people who are very different from us, we almost always are grateful for the understanding and acceptance that result from going beyond our comfort zone.

Today, pay attention to people who are different from you.

What have been your best experiences of diversity in the church?

Friday, March 28, 2014

Transparent Prayer

“Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity...But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’" Lk 18: 10-12

Lent is a time when many people commit themselves to develop a richer prayer life. Some say the rosary more often and more devotionally. Others try to get to mass a couple of times a week. A few ask for the grace to sit quietly in the presence of God without words, and still others try something new: centering prayer, lectio divina or mindfulness prayer. While all of these are praiseworthy, they might lead to a silly pride if we are faithful to them and think it is our doing. In fact, all prayer is a gift from God which we need to ask for often. More important, we need to be ready for distractions and not worry about our success. Prayer is about being faithful, not successful.

The tax collector in today's Gospel helps us understand this clearly. So does Pope Francis in the revealing interview he gave to Jesuit publications around the world. When asked who is Jorge Bergoglio, the Pope answered simply and truthfully. "I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner." Echoing the tax collector in Luke's gospel, who asked for God's mercy because he was a sinner, the Holy Father reminded all his readers that before all else he was a stumbling child of God who needed God's kindness on a daily basis.

We don't expect these kinds of sentiments from our leaders, and when we hear them, we often question their sincerity, but not in the case of Pope Francis. This man presents himself to the world with such sincerity, honesty and humility that we are drawn to him and to the Christ who he claims as Lord and Savior. More, he is setting an example for all believers. Acknowledging first that we are sinners situates us in every circumstance as a church of compassion. Accepting our own faults, we walk with other sinners on the road to eternal life.

Today, be honest at prayer. Tell God how much help you need.

What does authentic humility mean to you as a person of faith?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Loving God and Neighbor

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”

When push comes to shove, the Gospel is both simple and very difficult. More important, when we learn to love God with our whole heart, soul and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves, we lay the groundwork for discerning carefully how best to negotiate all the issues, questions and quandaries that come before us. The simple act of submitting to God and loving our neighbor frees us to listen without fear to whatever God asks.

At the same time, because our faith is often weak, we are not always ready to use Jesus' help, and we avoid asking for direction in dozens of ways. So desirous of being in control of our own lives, we keep working to figure everything out rather than to let go and ask the Lord for direction. At times, we tell ourselves that our fears and doubts are too small for God who must be about many other more pressing issues in the world. In other circumstances, we tell ourselves that we are not really struggling with a spiritual issue, but a psychological one and we should not bother with God with our weakness. In fact, all our excuses are empty ways of trying to direct our own lives. Only upon letting go of these desperate attempts to be God will we be free to be God's children.

Today, ask for the grace to let God be God in order to live the Gospel more simply.

Why do you think people cling so desperately to the controls they think they have over their lives?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Preserving Unity in the Church

“Every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste and house will fall against house." Lk 11:17

Because Lent is a time of penance, we would do well to reflect on the issues and people that most often get under our skin. Sometimes it is loud people, at other times it is those who say nothing even when asked their opinion. Sometimes it is people who crowd us or always have a question about or a critique of our political or religious choices. Whatever the issue or person, we need to learn not to overreact and risk upsetting the unity that Jesus prays for in John's Gospel.

All religious traditions recognize the need for unity among its adherents. Rumi says it this way, “Like a sculptor, if necessary, carve a friend out of stone. Realize that your inner sight is blind and try to see a treasure in everyone.” When we look first at what impresses and strengthens us as a community, we are less likely to focus on anyone's faults and weaknesses.

Unity was especially important for the first followers of Jesus. Pushed hard by the leaders of the Jewish community to renounce their Lord and often threatened with death by the Roman authorities, the first disciples had to be firm in faith without sacrificing the compassion Jesus taught. While we will have differences of opinion about how to live the Gospel, we need always to work towards a unity in faith for the sake of building God's reign.

Today, avoid a confrontation with someone with whom you disagree.

What has helped you retain a spirit of unity with your brothers and sisters in faith?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Evangelizing the Next Generation

“However, take care and be earnestly on your guard not to forget the things which your own eyes have seen, nor let them slip from your memory as long as you live, but teach them to your children and to your children’s children.” Dt 4:9

Anyone who goes to church regularly cannot ignore the lack of young people at the Sunday Eucharist, and though we should not reduce our faith to the obligation of weekly participation at mass, it is a clear indicator that the present generation has rejected or drifted away from of the practice of faith. Recent PEW research reminds us that when asked about their religious preference, "one-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever" (PEW 2014) in polling.

This phenomenon, while alarming, should not make us defensive, but ought to be a stimulus to our thinking and praying about how to announce the Gospel more effectively and passionately. We know that it is our obligation to keep the memory of God's love for us alive, especially as it became incarnate in Jesus, but we should not think that a more intense religious education will win the day. Rather, our witness to the Gospel in daily life, not our harping on the failure of young people to articulate their faith or to celebrate the Eucharist, is the best response we can offer to the next generation.

Today, pray to be more conscious of your role as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

What do you think is the most effective tool for evangelization in the 21st century?

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Annunciation

“"Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.' But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.'" Lk 1 29-20

When the unexpected comes, it often unnerves us. News of a close friend's sickness or the failure of a marriage we admired leaves us speechless and wondering what happened. In our busyness did we miss something important? Were we too self absorbed to notice the struggles others were having? 

The evangelist Luke paints a picture of Mary that emphasizes both her fear and her faith, a stance that encourages us not to be afraid of the unexpected, but to acknowledge our fear and pray for faith at the same time. We should not assume that Mary understood everything that was happening to her when Gabriel tells her not to be afraid. She was human, like all of us, and fear would have been a natural response to such a bold request, but Luke also wants us to celebrate Mary's faith that let's go and accepts her new role.

Responding to God at times of crisis is made more possible when we develop a spiritual life on a daily basis. Praying and reflecting about God's life among us in word and sacrament, and celebrating and serving those forgotten or ignored makes is possible to prepare ourselves for life as it comes. If we want to have Mary's honesty and humility, we must practice our faith every day.

Today, listen for the voice of God embedded in every thing you do and everyone you meet.

What about Mary's life calls you to live your faith more deeply?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Hard Truths from Difficult People

"When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with fury. They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong." Lk 4 28-29

Fury is a strong emotion that we sometimes feel in defense of our family or children, nation or culture. Fury can also be a personal defense. If someone questions our integrity, honesty or commitment, we can react and attack them, their positions or their intelligence, anything to deflect attention from our own vulnerability.

The gospel passage we are reflecting upon is set in Jesus' hometown of Nazareth. When Jesus challenges his neighbors to see him for the prophet he is, they react. How could this son of a poor carpenter pretend to be a prophet? No doubt some of them were also wondering what it was that others saw in Jesus and snidely suggested to anyone who would listen that if all the people fawning after Jesus had to live with him they would not be so sanguine about his supposed powers. No wonder they were furious.

It can be very difficult to hear the truth from people we don't like or respect, but that is the challenge of the Gospel. Until and unless we are ready to hear God's word in any form God desires to communicate it, we will miss many opportunities for transformation and growth. Asking for the grace to hear God each day, no matter the messenger or the message, is a powerful Lenten practice.

Today, listen to someone you do not respect.

What areas of your life and faith are most difficult to examine?