Saint Augustine of Canterbury

Lectionary: 351


Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins.Be hospitable to one another without complaining. As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace.



Readily I hear Jesus say I have come to give you life! Eagerly I hear him pray that "your joy may be complete." I welcome the good news of Saint Paul, "Christ died to set you free!"  What could be wrong with life, joy and freedom? Who would hesitate to receive such gifts?

For one thing, we can receive these gifts only after we have received another extraordinary and wonderful gift, which is hospitality. And that particular gift is not equipped with an on/off switch. It's simply ON all the time. It's as open and ready and available as Jesus' wide-spread arms on the cross.

For as long as any American can remember we've discussed our readiness to welcome immigrants to the United States. Recently immigration has become a hot button issue in Europe with the implosion of the Islamic empire. There are more migrants today than ever before in the history of the human race.

From what I know of history, migrating is what we human beings do. We are perpetually fleeing drought, hunger, disease and war to find food, security and freedom. The history of pre-Columbian North America is a story of desertification and climate change as the original peoples mixed nations, tribes and clans. Warfare was common among them as they struggled to survive in a  continent given to droughts, wildfires, blizzards, earthquakes and flooding -- not to mention pestilence. Some simply moved continually.

Every school child in the West should be familiar with the migrations of the Asian Mongolians, who pushed the Germanic tribes of eastern Europe who pushed the Celtic people ever westward.

Even prosperity creates problems: the Vikings, suddenly blessed with several centuries of fair weather, overran their boundaries and set out to conquer the world from Nova Scotia to Moscow and Byzantium. They had a settlement in Greenland (!) for over five centuries before the Little Ice Age forced them to leave.

Resisting migration is like standing on the seashore and commanding the waves to stop. A wall between Mexico and the United States would be no more successful than the Israeli West Bank Barrier  or the Great Wall of China. The project might provide work for a lot of people who would certainly argue for its efficiency but, given our habit of neglecting basic infrastructure, would soon be overrun with inefficiency. I have visited jails and read accounts of prisons and I am convinced it's not that easy to confine, control or resist human beings.

The Gospel insists that we take a different tack. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. It's easy to talk about trust in God who Provides for us. Hospitality to immigrants  invites us to do it.

Memorial of Saint Philip Neri, Priest

Lectionary: 350

Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles,
so that if they speak of you as evildoers,
they may observe your good works
and glorify God on the day of visitation.




The Christian never forgets the Day of Judgment. That can be a heavy burden to the irresolute. 

Perhaps it helps to remember that judgment is ubiquitous. It's in the dressing mirror and the bathroom scale. It's in the numbers that we've learned to track our lives, including age, weight, heart rate, breath rate, blood sugar, cholesterol, lipids, electrolytes, fats and dozens of other measurable bodily fluids. 

Judgment is in the stare of strangers, acquaintances, colleagues and friends. Even our families occasionally grant us a searching glance. It's the fit of clothes and the style of hair. It's what we do and what we invite with facebook, youtube and twitter. If you don't want your great grandchildren -- who might not be born for another forty years -- to know about your cheap clothes and slovenly habits, don't go near the Internet. 

Some unfortunate souls are so possessed by fears of judgment they suppose they're being watched by every camera in the store and on the street. Every microphone is live. Everyone has a  personal Truman Story.  

Personally I find helpful what the old man said to me fifty years ago: 
When I was young I worried about what people said about me; then I decided I don't care what people say about me. Now I realize people don't say anything about me!
But we do need other  people -- their concern, love and compassion -- to affirm our existence. That's where the Church and its innumerable communities come to life.  We welcome, affirm, embrace, admire and forgive one another. 

In today's first reading Saint Peter reminds his disciples they are being judged by non-believers. These "Gentiles" have heard our Gospel; they see our infidelities and judge us by our own standards. But perhaps too, "they may observe your good works and glorify God on the day of visitation."

Judgment is inescapable. It's not just a Catholic thing. But we learn to live in the loving, encouraging gaze of God whose Spirit directs our generous impulses and restrains our selfish ones. 


If you, LORD, keep account of sins, Lord, who can stand? But with you is forgiveness and so you are revered.

Memorial of Saint Bede the Venerable

Lectionary: 349

Realize that you were ransomed from your futile conduct, handed on by your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold but with the precious Blood of Christ as of a spotless unblemished Lamb.

The word futile appears occasionally in hospital ministry. Should the patient pursue further therapy for an illness that seems terminal, or should the patient accept palliative care to relieve pain and enhance whatever remains of life? Often the decision makes itself as therapeutic care seems to be futile.
But aren’t we all dying? How do I defend myself from the insinuating fear that my entire life is nothing more than a futile denial of death’s inevitability?
The Red Knight, in Edmund Spencer’s marvelous Faerie Queen, manfully confronted Despair in his cavern, a hole filled with the rotting bones of suicides; and was undone by the nasty old man’s arguments. He reminded the hapless warrior of all the sins he had committed and would commit again, of all the butchery and violence of war, and of the inevitability of judgment and condemnation:

“Think of the deep dungeon, wherein you were lately shut up; how often then did you wish for death! Though by good luck you escaped from there, yet death would prevent any further mischance into which you may happen to fall."
Then Despair went on to speak to the Red Cross Knight of all his sins. He pointed out the many wrong things he had done, and said that he had been so faithless and wicked that there was no hope for him of any mercy or forgiveness. Rather than live longer and add to his sins, it would be better for him to die at once, and put an end to all.
The Knight was greatly moved by this speech, which pierced his heart like a sword. Too well he knew that it was all true.

Just as the Red Knight was about to stab himself his girlfriend Una hauled him out of the dark cave and into sunlight.

Suicide has become an epidemic in the United States. Just when we finally attained the goal of worldwide supremacy; having outlasted the Communists and won the Cold War, we find many of our citizens intentionally killing themselves in overt acts of self-destruction; and millions more destroying themselves day by day with excessive drinking, eating, smoking and self-medicating. We boast that our way of life is the envy of the world even as the world watches in horror our self-destruction.
Saint James saw it a long time ago. Despite our success we have inherited a futile way of life, “handed on by your ancestors.…” If they struggled to make the United States preeminent in war and peace, a cultural and economic empire, we should now be enjoying the fruit of their labor. But we don’t. To our alcoholics, addicts and suicides it hardly seems "worth a bucket of warm spit." 

The Saint also saw the way out of this impasse; Realize that you were ransomed… with the precious Blood of Christ as of a spotless unblemished Lamb.
Saint James first asks us to "realize." We must know and ponder the gift -- the ransom -- which was paid for our deliverance. Jesus did not hesitate to "bleed out" for us. Not "for a way of life" but for us. Saint John's gospel emphasizes his pouring out the bodily fluids of breath, water and blood.  He was emptied for us.

If the American way of life is utterly pointless, what has Jesus won for us? We can use the word freedom. In the Spirit of Jesus we freely choose love, engagement, sacrifice for and communion with one another. We recognize the fearful inclination to death in despairing solitude and choose life in communion. 

We choose to show up willingly, freely, readily, wholly in Church, in family, in everything we do. "Here I am!" we say to every situation. 

The American experiment has not yet failed, but it most certainly will if we do not freely, willingly, eagerly, enthusiastically embrace its challenges. 

Tuesday of the Seventh Week of Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 342


Adulterers!
Do you not know that to be a lover of the world means enmity with God?
Therefore, whoever wants to be a lover of the world
makes himself an enemy of God.
Or do you suppose that the Scripture speaks without meaning when it says,
The spirit that he has made to dwell in us tends toward jealousy?
But he bestows a greater grace; therefore, it says:
God resists the proud,

but gives grace to the humble.



Saint James uses the strongest possible language to describe the Christian parties who engage in “wars and conflicts.” They are “adulterers.”

With that phrase he invokes the biblical tradition concerning pagans and idolaters. These unfortunate people who have never known God live in a world of shadows without certain knowledge of good or evil, truth or falsehood. Their songs and prayers, their hopes and desires are pinned to illusions. Consequently their morals and ideals are contaminated by falsehood. Our Jewish ancestors, well versed in the Law of Moses and sanctified by their religious observances, knew they were blessed by the Lord. He called them out of Egyptian slavery and into freedom.

But even worse than a pagan are those who knowingly turn away from God to take up again alien worship. So when James nails certain Christians for their divisiveness as adulterers it is more than a schoolyard insult; these partisans and factionalists have abandoned the worship of the one God and given themselves over to idolatry.

Then he “psychoanalyzes” why they are behaving like pagan adulterers. They covet; they envy; they are controlled by their passions. They are “lovers of the world,” and that is utterly incompatible with the love of God.

My favorite philosopher of the moment, John Macmurray, describes three different levels of relationship; that is, three ways of relating to reality. First is the mechanical. Some people think the universe is only a huge machine. 18th century deists supposed that God was like an artisan who created a watch, wound it up, set it on a table and walked away. If there is a God, they believed, he has nothing to do with this world. This world view supposes that the human being is also a machine made of chemicals. When people compare the brain to a computer they’re basically using that analogy. They treat people like machines, used for cannon fodder in war, or commodities to be bought and sold. 

Their world view is deterministic; if we could build a computer with enough data and the right programs we could predict everything that will happen in the future. Marxist communism and liberal capitalism, for example, believe their future visions are inevitable. These "free thinkers" do not believe in free will; everything is determined. 

Secondly, there are organisms, like plants and animals. These creatures respond to the cycles of nature (night and day, summer, fall, winter and spring, etc). They have needs and desires but little or no self-awareness; they are driven by instinct with limited ability to make actual choices. Perhaps you have watched as your cat buried her droppings in imaginary sand, or a squirrel buried an acorn on a stone floor. They cannot suppress those instinctive behaviors and, apparently see no need to.

Finally, there is the human being which has no instincts and may transcend these mechanical and organic kinds of existence. A human being may choose to ignore or “sublimate” (make sublime) these impulses. Especially by recognizing other human beings in their uniqueness, neither as machines nor animals, the individual escapes a divided existence and enters communion with others.

The “adulterers” of Saint James’ letter, despite their baptism, have fallen prey to their animal passions. They envy and covet; they mindlessly engage in wars and conflicts even among themselves. If they ask anything of God it is only to satisfy their appetites; it is not to glorify God by the mighty works he might perform among them.

Saint James urges them to “...submit to God. Resist the Devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” 

In the communion of the Church, freed of idolatry, we abide in God.

Monday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 347
  
In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials….
Uncles and great uncles like me sometimes find amusement in the spectacle of a child about to cry. First there’s the loud bang of the hard little head on the harder table, followed by the surprised look. The mouth is open and the air is sucked in for a long pause. “Here it comes.” somebody says but it’s still a while coming. Several more intakes seem necessary though there is hardly room for more air and none has been released. 

Then finally the outburst of rage against the offending table and the mother, aunt or grandmother who comes running to comfort the suffering whose pain would have subsided already. It’s no longer about pain; it’s the insult to the toddler’s freedom of movement and the expectation of comfort. Without the audience the blow might have been absorbed in silence; or so the great uncle conjectures.
What I observe is the helplessness of the four-year-old in the face of his emotion. He must scream; he must have attention. Something has hurt or disappointed or insulted him and he will not abide it. Consumed with anger he gives vent to his rage.
Of course, the only difference between the toddler and the great uncle is the way we manage our anger. It’s there in either case. I am just as likely to fume and rage when I hit my head on an unforgiving shelf. A part of us never grows past four years old, and there’s no reasoning with a toddler’s emotions.
In today’s first reading, Saint Peter invites the Christian to “rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials.”
Our freedom is there. We have the ability to rejoice in our sufferings despite that initial response of outrage.
That freedom begins with the sufferings we freely choose, the sacrifices we have considered in advance and preferred. Rather than stay abed as long as my body wants, I get up when the alarm goes off, shave, dress and go to breakfast. Questions are not permitted; hesitations are firmly repressed; excuses will not be entertained.
That freedom matures as opportunities present themselves. Perhaps someone has asked a favor. I agree to it immediately. Perhaps someone has neglected the simplest of chores – he left the milk on the table instead of replacing it in the refrigerator – and I put it away. I do that for others and I’m sure they do it for me. If we don’t carry one another’s burden without hesitation and without complaint we will certainly collapse into civil war.
Occasionally we’re asked to make greater sacrifices. We take a cut in pay for the greater good of the company; we relocate when the city builds a highway.
Saint Peter’s people apparently suffered all that and more. They were maligned for being Christians. In his epistle the name seems to be an insult like “cat lickers” or “pro testers.” They were socially ostracized and economically deprived; some may have been arrested and imprisoned. We know there were Christians actually martyred for the faith.
The inner-four-year-old is angry about these insults; we never outgrow that feeling. But, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, we can baptize these incidents and turn them to blessings. Saint Luke tells us how Saint Peter and Saint John were tortured by the authorities and “left the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.”
I may not have to suffer those indignities but I can be grateful for the sacrifices I was asked to make and -- much to my own surprise -- did so willingly.

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

Lectionary: 166

 

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom we have gained access by faith
to this grace in which we stand,
and we boast in hope of the glory of God.



In 1922, G.K. Chesterton described the United States as “a nation with the soul of a church.” In the same paragraph he also said it is “the only nation in the world founded on a creed.”


Almost a century later we find that religious impulse still haunts our discourse but we would be hard pressed to describe the religion of this “church.” Along with Catholics, Lutherans and Methodist our census includes Native Americans, Muslims, Buddhists and Wiccans – not to mention the parody religions. Where nuns have almost disappeared, we find a growing population of nones, meaning people who indicate none as their religion of choice.

Nor can we overlook those rituals that have replaced religion; they have all its trappings without the title. I think of:
  • spectator sports. These popular gatherings are steeped in ritual and laced with values; they arouse powerful emotions and lend historical dimension to otherwise uneventful lives. I know men who count the seasons from baseball to football to golf and back to baseball, with tennis, basketball, hockey and soccer to ease the transitions. There's little else in life for them. 
  • Motorcycling has a dozen different sects including barbarian nomadic gangs, Christian motorcyclists, Veterans and retired couples cruising on his and her matching motorcycles. Although motorcycling appeals to be a cult of individualists, their individuality disappears as they dress alike and travel in large packs. (Go figure!)
  • Gun ownership, with its priesthood in the NRA, arouses intense religious feelings among its adherents. Romantic patriots profess a minuteman's readiness to die for their weapons, if not for anyone else. 
  • And then there are the more diabolical cults of alcohol, tobacco and drugs, which zombie-like suck the soul of millions of people.
  • Did I mention gambling? No? Never mind.

What does the Catholic offer to this atrophied church? Our faith is reasonable. It’s founded on the historic events of God’s action in human history and it’s buttressed with rationality. Although we could never have figured out that God is good, or that we must be saved by an Incarnate Messiah, or that we must be animated by the Holy Spirit, these revealed truths make sense. 


Our beliefs make a lot more sense than watching men risk their lives at breakneck speeds on a narrow racecourse, or amassing hundreds of lethal weapons, or habitual and frequent intoxication. They make more sense than serial marriage and divorce or neutered sexual athletics among strangers.


Our religion, which at its birth in Jerusalem was midwifed by Greek philosophy, is practical, reasonable and beautiful. It appeals to sensible persons without ignoring their emotional needs, and invites those who are carried away by fear or desire to come to their senses and rejoin us in church.  


On this Solemnity of the Holy Trinity we praise God that the Father has revealed Jesus and the Holy Spirit to us. We should remember it took almost four hundred years for the Church to agree on the basic language of the Trinity and that discussion is ongoing. Especially since the Second Vatican Council the Church has realized that our neglect of the doctrine in favor of sentimentality has spawned a plague of atheism among intellectuals.


Some of the greatest minds in human history have spent their lives pondering and discussing this mystery and formulating precise language for it. They point out the landmines of heresy, those fascinating misconceptions that lead back to irrationality and tyranny. They guide us to insights that agree with our experience of the Christian life, make sense, and inspire us to greater virtue. These doctrines may be hard to explain to those unfamiliar with our rituals and beliefs but they have a slow, gravitational attraction that draws honest seekers to the faith.


We should never stop pondering the Most Holy Trinity, nor should we fail to thank God daily for enfolding us in its beautiful intoxication.


Saturday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 346


Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.
The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful.


Just to read Saint James' exhortation that I should confess my sins to the friars with whom I live, or my colleagues in the VA, or my family, reminds me of how frightened I am of others. 

Where did it come from? How have I even considered myself a well person when I have always been so afraid of self-disclosure? 

There is no need to bear these things alone. It doesn't help and it's not necessary. 

Nor should my sins alarm anyone. As the wise one said, "There was only one original sin; the rest are just cheap knock-offs." Certainly mine show no great originality.

The first friars of Saint Francis were remarkably open about their fears, failings and sins. Witnesses of the Chapter of Mats, that first great gathering of the entire Order, tell how the young ruffians, bearded, dirty, barefoot and shabby freely confessed their sins to one another. They had no shame and nothing to hide. They had set out on the way of failure with the Greatest Failure of All, the Crucified Lord. They did not hesitate to share their moral and spiritual failings with one another. 

In so doing, they enjoyed the freedom of Our Savior's Resurrection. Destroyed utterly by sin, he was raised up by the inexhaustible mercy of God. 

So why am I  afraid to admit my sins to others?