Wednesday of the Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

This week we have begun a series of readings from the Gospel according to Saint Luke that will take us through the rest of the liturgical year, ending in late November.

In today’s gospel we read, “Jesus left and went to a deserted place” apparently to pray. Ten times Saint Luke tells us specifically about Jesus’ practice of solitary prayer.  I have listed them below. You might notice that most of these, but not all, highlight significant moments in his life: his baptism, selection of disciples, transfiguration, and agony in the garden.

1.       Luke 3.21: Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened,
2.       Luke 5.16: But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.
3.       Luke 6.12: Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God
4.       Luke 9.18: Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?
5.       Luke 9.28: Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus* took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain.  And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.
6.       Luke 11.1: He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’
7.       Luke 22.32: but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you,
8.       Luke 22.41: Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed,
9.       Luke 22.44: In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground
10.   Luke 22.45: When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief,

But not all of his prayers were in moments of crisis:
…now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.

All too often priests, parishioners, parents and grandparents exclaim, “I haven’t time to pray. I’m too busy with the Lord’s work!” Try explaining that to Jesus as he withdrew from the crowds who demanded both his preaching and his healing. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a preacher or priest who turned down an opportunity to preach before an eager congregation to pray in solitude. Jesus made a habit of it!

Prayer should come easily and naturally to us. We live in the presence of God; our schedule should be built upon the foundation of daily prayer. The Church recommends daily Mass, Liturgy of the Hours, the daily rosary, the angelus, scripture reading, morning offering, examination of conscience, and meditation. Not many can do all of them but all of us could practice some of them. When we do, we’ll find Jesus there, praying with us.

Tuesday of the Twenty-second week in Ordinary Time

We are not of the night or of darkness.
Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do,
but let us stay alert and sober
Ever since the attack on Pearl Harbor the United States has been on high alert, ready for enemy attack. At one time we maintained a fleet of nuclear-armed airplanes flying night and day along the northern Canada border, ready to fly into Russia at a moment’s notice. Blind-sided by 9/11 we have been even more alert to terrorist threats over the past ten years.
The unprovoked attacks and our response have taken their toll on our nerves and our resources. We maintain the largest, best equipped, best trained military on earth. The entire earth is in awe of our destructive capacity; no other nation even attempts to rival our military superiority. If the Lord had been speaking of military readiness in today’s gospel, we’re there!
But facts on the ground tell another story. Millions of our people cannot endure such tension and choose the darkness of alcoholism, drug abuse, violence and an array of obsessive compulsive behaviors. Their response to every crisis, challenge, and opportunity is to smoke, drink, shoot up, fly into rage or flee into the some other inane behavior. As a result we have locked over a million citizens into our prisons and jails. This is not what Jesus had in mind when he urged us to stay sober and alert.
The Bible is very familiar with our plight. The kingdoms of Judah and Israel maintained their own militaries – laughably inadequate forces against the mighty powers of Egypt and Mesopotamia. They also prayed to innumerable other gods in the shrines that dotted the countryside and polluted Jerusalem. Officially they worshipped the one God in his fabulous temple but, in fact, they were no more Jewish than the United States is Christian. Had they been, there would have been no prophets to continually lambaste them.
But the promises of God’s word and the hope of God’s chosen survives. The Jews were faithful enough to keep a record of his word. We have today’s wonderful Psalm 27 to teach us again to trust in the Lord and walk in his way:
One thing I ask of the LORD;
this I seek:
To dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
That I may gaze on the loveliness of the LORD
and contemplate his temple.
I believe that I shall see the bounty of the LORD
in the land of the living.
Wait for the LORD with courage;
be stouthearted, and wait for the LORD.

The Memorial of the Martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist

New life springs from dirt

For the Lord himself, with a word of command,

with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God,
will come down from heaven,
and the dead in
Christ will rise first.
Then we who are alive, who are left,
will be caught up together with them in the clouds
to meet the Lord in the air.
Thus we shall always be with the Lord.
Therefore, console one another with these words.

I met a woman some years ago who told me she had recently quit a church which believed Christ was coming soon and no one of their members would die before he arrived. I asked, “What do you do when someone dies? Do you have a funeral?”
She said, “We don’t talk about it.”
But apparently the early church was also astonished that some followers of Christ died before his second coming. The people of Thessalonica needed reassuring words from Saint Paul on the matter.
He invoked great authority -- Indeed, we tell you this, on the word of the Lord – when he assured them that those who are still alive when he comes will have no advantage over those who have died. Death had the taint of sin, shame and guilt but Saint Paul believed our beloved dead are with the Lord and we have nothing to fear about that. Therefore, console one another with these words.
Today we take his intent – that of consolation – more seriously than a literal interpretation of his apocalyptic scenario. Indeed we read the entire Book of Revelation as reassurance and encouragement. Despite its cataclysmic spectacles, the Church is more interested in its word of comfort to the poor, abandoned and despised. Because they are faithful in their poverty, they will enjoy rewards the wealthy have never dreamt of.  
We can only imagine the despair and horror John the Baptist might have felt as he died. Locked away in the silent, pitch black of a dungeon, suddenly accosted by men with blinding torches, thrown to the floor, immobilized by a dozen pitiless hands and beheaded: his death was senseless and merciless.
But we honor him as one of the greatest saints, a true hero of our faith. Hearing of his death Jesus withdrew to the wilderness to mourn the loss of his friend, cousin and colleague. In death as in life, John was the forerunner of the Lord. We who follow in their blood-stained footprints find comfort in the promise which sustained them. 

Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time

oops, 2 days in a row
He turned and said to Peter,
"Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me.
You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do."

Then Jesus said to his disciples,
"Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.

Sometimes I don’t really hear a friend’s argument until he shouts at me, and I realize he’s angry. Then I hear and understand.
I wonder if Peter was astonished at the Lord’s sudden outburst. Moments before, as we heard last Sunday, Jesus had conferred on him great authority:
And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

These words seem to come out of the sky, as This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” had once been heard. In future centuries these very words about Peter will be chiseled over church entrances for all the world to read. Parents will read them to their children and their children’s children and tremble at their import. Perhaps the rush of authority went to Peter’s head. Perhaps he believed he could now advise Jesus on certain matters. Hadn’t he just been consulted about Jesus’ public image? (“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”) All this talk about torture and death sounded pretty negative. It was downright gloom and doom, and certainly no way to maintain the morale of the cadre around him.

But suddenly Jesus was lashing out against Peter, “Satan!” And then Jesus spoke directly to his disciples again, as if Peter were no longer spokesman or chief disciple of the group. If anything he was now the whipping boy as the Master specifically rebuked this kind of behavior. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” 

“Dear Peter," I want to say, "it’s not going to get any easier. Get used to it.” To be a disciple of Jesus we must learn to see as God sees and think as God thinks. We will have to forget ourselves even as God forgets himself, and that is a total sacrifice beyond all imagining.

Six days later Peter would ascend a high mountain and see Jesus transfigured, in the company of Moses and Elijah. Any thought of advising the Lord should be banished from his mind:
Who has directed the spirit of the LORD,
or instructed him as his counselor?
Whom did he consult to gain knowledge?
Who taught him the path of judgment,
or showed him the way of understanding?
                Isaiah 40
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
   I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
   Tell me, if you have understanding.
                Job 38

Each one of us finally must learn to let God be God. Life is so much simpler after that.

Memorial of Saint Monica

Master, I knew you were a demanding person,

harvesting where you did not plant
and gathering where you did not scatter;
so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground.
Here it is back.’

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
            Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 303–312

Apprehension carries two meanings. Its first meaning today connotes fearfulness, though, in his day, Shakespeare probably intended apprehension as the god's ability to understand mysteries. But mysteries are often fearful to moderns.
As I consider today’s parable I think of the astonishing courage and generosity of which man is capable, and of his depraved cowardice. Like Adam in the Garden, who blamed the Lord for creating the woman who tempted him, the “wicked, lazy servant” blames his master for his failure.
But his cowardice and his excuse cannot shield him from blame and its consequences:
… throw this useless servant into the darkness outside,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.

The Lord continually urges us, “Do not be afraid.” It may be the most common admonition found in the New Testament. It was Gabriel’s first word to Mary and Zechariah, and Jesus’ exhortation during the Last Supper. (In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world. John 16:33)

But this piece of work is often a frightened creature. We fear the dark and the light, solitude and crowds, viruses, germs and grizzly bears. We fear poverty, hunger, and homelessness even when we’re wealthy, well-fed, safe, warm and dry. We have a romantic fascination with war and a traumatized horror of it. We invest billions in security and insurance and yet terrorism drives our foreign and domestic policies.

When I was young and in treatment for depression, I was astonished by the fearfulness I saw among the women in the program. Twenty years later I would see that I was just as fearful, and had been all along. I was afraid to tell the truth, to be known or loved or appreciated, to be touched or caressed. I was afraid of advice even when I asked for it. 

Alas, there are cicadas resting on her veil and nose!
If Jesus does nothing else for us, he delivers us from fear. Christian history is filled with men and women of courage. Speaking out against injustice, setting out for the unknown, exploring unspeakable mysteries, they have ushered the mercy of God into laws, economics and science -- even warfare. They have shown us The Courage to Be, and there is no other way to live. 

Friday of the Twenty-First Week in Ordinary Time

Brothers and sisters,

we earnestly ask and exhort you in the Lord Jesus that,
as you received from us
how you should conduct yourselves to please God?
and as you are conducting yourselves?
you do so even more.
For you know what instructions we gave you through the
Lord Jesus.

This is the will of God, your holiness:

I have occasionally written about sexuality and marriage in this blog; let me address a different issue today: how you should conduct yourselves to please God. I take a cue from the parable in today’s gospel, the wise and foolish virgins.
I suppose we’re all watching the economic news of the United States and the world with the same concern we might bring to a massive military event. The future looks bleak – or shall we say sparse? – and I don’t think that’s just my own moralistic preacher side that sees that coming. (Preachers have been prophesying gloom and doom since this country was founded, but this time they might be right.)
The parable of the wise and foolish virgins recalls another story in scripture, Joseph and his interpretation of the pharaoh’s dream. You’ll remember the pharaoh saw ten healthy cows come out of the Nile River, and ten emaciated cows. He wondered what to make of it and Joseph told him, “We will have ten years of abundance and ten years of famine.”
The wise Pharaoh then put Joseph in charge of the entire Egyptian economy. He built huge warehouses and prudently stored away grain year after year, throughout the boom years. When the famine struck, the Egyptians survived by drawing from their storehouses until it passed. They were even able to sell grain to foreigners, such as Joseph’s family, who came from Asia.
Lots of people like to think people of the ancient world were not half so clever as we moderns are, but we should take a lesson from the Egyptians.
It seems that, even in the boom times here in the United States, when there is plenty, many people live on the edge. Some do it because they have no choice, but many do it because they’re foolish.
Economists have been warning us for years that Americans don’t have enough personal savings. Wealth was not how much you saved but how much credit you had; i.e. how much you could borrow! We built an economy on credit and consumption, rather than on savings and investment.
Suddenly, as they told us twenty years ago, our infrastructure is crumbling. We didn’t want to pay the taxes to maintain the roads and bridges and now they’re collapsing – when we can’t afford to rebuild them.
I once wrote a mini-column in a Louisiana newspaper – the weekly contribution from the ministerial alliance – about paying taxes. I asked, “What’s the point of buying an expensive car with the money you saved on lower taxes, when you don’t have a road to drive it on? Why do you build a big house outside of town when you won’t pay the taxes to maintain your electrical, gas, water and sewer lines?”
The next day a woman said to me, “I never thought of that!”
So now the Great Recession is upon us, and another Great Depression threatens the entire world.
Perhaps the next time, we’ll take a tip from the wise virgins and from Joseph the Patriarch. When the boom years return we’ll prepare for the bleak ones. In the meantime, we’ll suffer this together. 

Thursday of the Twenty-First Week in Ordinary Time

Celebrating the KC's
4th Degree Assembly
in New Albany, Indiana

We have been reassured about you, brothers and sisters,

in our every distress and affliction, through your faith.
For we now live, if you stand firm in the Lord.

Saint Paul came as a stranger to Thessalonica, but he departed the city as a broken-hearted lover. He had such a great affection for the new Christians there; only the Holy Spirit could drive him on to other cities to announce the Kingdom of God.
When we think of Church we often think of institution and organization; perhaps we think of doctrines and beliefs, or ethical teachings and rules. But the first experience of Church should be the affection that binds us together.
You may not know the Pope; but you know a priest who knows a bishop who was personally appointed by the Pope. There are only three degrees of separation between you and the Vicar of Christ. The entire church is bound that closely together.
In our parishes we strive to discover that bonding within our hearts. Some people are rather odd. Have you noticed that? There are some people you might not choose for friendship or acquaintance, but there they are in your church and you must deal with them. You do more with them than “worship the same God,” (that empty and careless phrase.) You worship in the same Church and receive the same sacraments. You belong to them, and they to you.
You might not realize how deeply you do care until something tragic happens. You hear the news and you say, “I knew her!” with some surprise. And you say, “She deserved better than that.” Perhaps you feel a bit guilty for not being kinder, for not taking the opportunities you had to pass the time of day with them.
Or perhaps you hear of good news for that person, some award of recognition or feat of heroism; and you say “I know him!” And you realize it’s not too late to change your mind. You owe him that much.
We hear warnings of just such experiences in today’s gospel:
So too, you also must be prepared,
for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.

The church is solidly set on the foundation of Jesus’ sacrificing love for us. Reading his letters we see how Saint Paul built upon that foundation with his affection for people who once were strangers and aliens. Daily the Lord invites us to continue building the church up in love for one another. 

Feast of Saint Bartholomew, Apostle

Mid-summer sumac

Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him,

"Here is a true child of Israel.
There is no duplicity in him."

Although Saint Paul claimed to be the least of the apostles (I Corinthians 15:9), that distinction probably belongs to Saint Bartholomew. We know very little of him. According to some ancient historians, Bartholomew, otherwise known as Nathaniel (see last year’s entry about that) disappeared into “India” and evangelized there. Today he is memorialized in many parishes (as in the Louisville archdiocese) and hospitals, including one of the oldest in the world, in London, England.

According to Saint Mark, the apostles had two important responsibilities: to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message….  When everyone is in a hurry to get somewhere else it is important to remember the singular privilege and duty of being with someone. Showing up may be the most important thing we do every day, after breathing.
As a certified obsessive compulsive I know how hard it is to stop and be with someone. I’ve always got someplace to go and something to do. I’m the fellow who creates a checklist at the beginning of each day and finishes many of them. Fortunately, my work at the hospital affords me the opportunity to slow down and be with anyone who wants my time: patients, families, nurses, housekeepers or other chaplains. Since no one goes to the hospital to see the chaplain, I don’t worry if I don’t accomplish very much.

To be with someone is to listen to that person, to show her the singular honor of your attention. Often, with my tin ears, I can barely hear over the clatter of the hospital; and I don’t know what they’re talking about. So it’s better not to talk; but I pay rapt attention and that counts for something.
This much we know about Saint Bartholomew: he was with Jesus. And what a privilege that was. When he went out to proclaim the message, he disappeared into history; but he remains in the mind of God as his name remains in the fond memory of the Church. Who could ask for anything more? 

Tuesday of the Twenty-third week of Ordinary Time

But as we were judged worthy by God to be entrusted with the Gospel,
that is how we speak,
not as trying to please men,
but rather God, who judges our hearts.
It seems worthy entered our Catholic vocabulary with the Jansenist heresy in the seventeenth century. There was a supposition that a person might be worthy to receive the Blessed Sacrament if she had received the Sacrament of Penance within the last few days or hours. She should have maintained an absolute guard over every thought, word and deed since that time with no hint of lust, envy, resentment, greed or jealousy. Not entertaining such thoughts was not sufficient; they should not have passed through her mind at all. The fact that this is humanly impossible did not discourage the Jansenists; they knew from the start they were not worthy and should not receive the Blessed Sacrament.
The heresy came to America by way of the Irish, who contracted the infection when the English closed their seminaries and forced the candidates for priesthood to study in France. Of course the Church had condemned the heresy and its leaders had publicly recanted, but they maintained their poisonous teaching anyway. It was the spirit of the time in Ireland to exercise tight control over every human impulse, especially under the occupation of the English armies. Catholics could not celebrate Mass, sing hymns or recite the rosary. It was not easy to survive and many devout souls slipped into scrupulosity, sexual obsessions and alcoholism in their effort to suppress their human natures.
Fortunately, Saint Paul had no such trauma. He could speak freely of his being “judged worthy by God to be entrusted with the Gospel” because of his personal experience and the authorization the Church had given him. Like King David, he knew God had chosen him with, and despite of, his personal failings. If he walked in the way of perfection, he did not suppose that his mind would ever be sealed against thoughts of anger, resentment, discouragement or weariness. His letters amply display all these traits.
Saint Paul did not have “to please men,” neither the Jewish nor gentile authorities who harassed him from one place to the next. Nor was he afraid to confront his fellow Christians. You recall he challenged the first pope, Saint Peter, when he saw him favoring Jewish Christians over gentile Christians.  Saint Paul put his faith in God, the Just Judge, who does not see as men see, and does not judge as men judge.  As we practice the same faith we learn to surrender our anxieties and scruples to our merciful and gracious God and gratefully celebrate the Sacraments.

Memorial of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary

We give thanks to God always for all of you,
remembering you in our prayers,
unceasingly calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love
and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ,
before our God and Father,
knowing, brothers and sisters loved by God, how you were chosen.

New Testament scholars believe these are the first words of the New Testament, the beginning of the oldest document in our Church. Saint Paul wrote his first letter to the Thessalonians in about 45 AD. There might have been earlier letters from other disciples to other churches but this one is the one the Church could never forget. The Holy Spirit saw to that.
As we celebrate the Queenship of Mary, on the eighth day of her Assumption, we hear Saint Paul speaking with gratitude to his disciples there in Thessalonica. It is not hard to imagine a Christian saying these words to any Christian who keeps the faith; and it is especially easy to apply them to the Mother of God: We give thanks to God always for... you....
Remembering the courage and faith of that young woman, her devout prayer and intense longing for the Messiah, we have to be grateful that we can call her one of our own. God has given her to us. She is, as the poet William Wordsworth wrote, "our tainted nature's solitary boast."
Our gratitude for Mary is intensified as we remember Jesus's dying words to her and the Beloved Disciple: Behold your mother. Behold your son. We can regard Mary as any woman of the Church and be grateful for a sister in the faith; but Jesus called her "your mother." I am grateful to the woman who gave me birth and made such extraordinary sacrifices for my well being, but I know also she was a fallible human being. Jesus has given Mary to her and to me to be our friend, patroness and protector. What I could not say to my mother I can share with her. What my mother did not know of God, Mary will tell me.
I give thanks to God always for her expecially as I remember her in prayer. Contemplating the scriptures of Advent and Christmas, the wedding at Cana and the Crucifixion, and Pentecost we encounter Mary often. She leads us in the way, since she was the first to hear the Good News from the Angel Gabriel. We remember her in prayer as we meet the Lord Jesus, especially her work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope.

On this eighth day of the Assumption we celebrate the Queenship of Mary. There is not a word in scripture to describe the faithful Jew or Christian that does not apply her. 


Twenty-first Sunday of Ordinary time

He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"
Simon Peter said in reply,
"You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
Jesus said to him in reply,
"Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. 

A week after the Iowa straw poll we hear of Jesus taking his own poll of a sort. He asked, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” Predictably, they have no clue. In matters of faith we cannot expect crowds of people to be wise or perceptive or knowing. However, when Jesus turns to his own disciples, he discovers that they have some insight. God has spoken to them, especially to Peter. If his knowledge is still vague, it’s a beginning.
In the gospel of Saint Matthew, up to this point, Jesus has spoken broadly to the crowds as his disciples listened. He has cured the sick, fed the crowds, walked on water and spoken of the Kingdom of God in glowing terms. He has created a sensation which, inevitably, must meet push-back. His enemies are growing daily angrier and more powerful. His question at Caesarea-Philippi marks a turning point in his career. From the far north of Israel he turns south and heads for Jerusalem and certain death. He will no longer speak openly with the crowds; rather, he will speak in secret to his disciples, preparing them for catastrophe.
Jesus’ question stands as a challenge to everyone who claims to believe in Christ, everyone who chooses this or that church to attend, everyone who claims to have knowledge of Jesus. Not any answer will do. It’s not good enough to suppose he is a prophet like Jeremiah, John the Baptist or one of the prophets. It’s not good enough to suppose he is a teacher like the Buddha or a holy man like Muhammad. Everyone has a right to his own opinions of Jesus but only those who accept his own self-understanding can be his disciples. We must say to him, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”
Saint Paul, contemplating this mystery, exclaims, Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!” How is it possible for flesh and blood to know this mystery? It is more than anything we can figure out. Typically we see only what we expect to see. Teachers must lead their scholars from one truth to the next, from addition to subtraction, from multiplication to division. But the knowledge of Jesus bursts upon us. We may have seen the dawn but we could not imagine the overwhelming brilliance of the sun until we were blinded by its light.
This is why the church believes in its own infallibility. No one knows who Jesus is unless the Father has spoken to them through our teaching, traditions and liturgies. Historians can tell us something of his time; anthropologists have interesting insights about his culture and religion; and psychologists are always entertaining; but their sciences do not reveal Jesus. That gift belongs to the Holy Spirit.
Saint Peter appears in the gospels as the spokesperson for the disciples. He expresses what the crowds – even democratic crowds and their elected representatives – cannot know. At Caesaria-Philippi the apostles are beginning to understand, although their understanding is vague and uncertain. That’s why Jesus “strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.” Their understanding must grow and mature and be tried in the crucible of Good Friday. In the sunshine of Easter Sunday and fiery glow of Pentecost they will enjoy the privilege of announcing their faith infallibly to the world.

Memorial of Saint Bernard

Saint Francis in the
Valley of Saint Francis

Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example.

How fascinating that Jesus tells us to obey even those authorities who fail to edify us by their manner of life! Here is another of his counter-cultural teachings, though we might suppose it is precisely the opposite of counter-cultural.
Counter-cultural in the 1960’s and 1970’s was a catch-all phrase for alternative music, communes, recreational drugs and subsistence farming. Today counter-culture might be green, gay or gentle. One thing counter-culture never suggested then or today was obedience. That would have been too far out for even the most radical hipster. 
But here is Jesus teaching us to obey the scribes and Pharisees who “tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders….

Saint Francis echoed this teaching when he urged his contemporaries to show profoundest respect to the clergy, despite their personal lives:
We must also frequently visit churches and venerate and revere the clergy not so much for themselves, if they are sinners, but because of their office and administration of the most holy Body and Blood of Christ which they sacrifice upon the altar, receive and administer to others. And let all of us know for certain that no one can be saved except through the holy words and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which the clergy pronounce, proclaim and minister. (from the Later exhortation to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance.)
His Admonition #26 reads:
Blessed is the servant who has faith in clerics who live properly according to the form of the Roman Church.  And woe to those who despise them; for even if they might be sinners, yet no one must judge them, because only the Lord himself reserves to himself judging them. For how much greater is their ministry, when they handle the most sacred Body and  Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which they themselves receive and only they minister to  others, so much more are they guilty of sin who sin against them, than against all other  people of this world.

With these teachings and others Saint Francis reminded his disciples that the Eucharist is greater than the priest who administers it. His “counter-cultural” gesture was to revere the sinful priest despite his sins, honoring the authority of even those who are personally and flagrantly unworthy of such respect. In a sense he subverted the illegitimate authority of the priest who called attention to himself, and turned our attention back to the Lord of the Eucharist who loves and saves his people despite the sins of the clergy.

Obedience puts to death the “old man” with its self-centered willfulness. It reminds me that my life is not about me. As Saint Paul said, For to me life is Christ, and death is gain. (Philippians 1: 21) That’s the hard lesson that the Son of God taught on his way to Calvary. Obedience paves that hard road and makes it easier to travel. 

Friday of the Twentieth Week in Ordinary Time

Sunlit station of the cross
at Mount Saint Francis

"Do not ask me to abandon or forsake you!
For wherever you go, I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge,
your people shall be my people, and your God my God."

The Book of Ruth is one of the shortest, loveliest books in the Bible. Though God neither appears nor speaks in the story, his presence is manifest as he guides Naomi, Ruth and Boaz. Although each is moved by a different impulse we sense the Holy Spirit moving in their familiar, human motives. Naomi decides to return to her home and family because she has no where else to go. Ruth clings to Naomi out of great personal affection for her mother-in-law. Because Ruth is widowed they are no longer kin, but she prefers Naomi to her own family. And Boaz is drawn by the charm of a homeless, beautiful young woman.
Catholic philosophy teaches that grace builds on nature, rather than grace suppresses or destroys nature. Although we are born with the burden of Original Sin, deprived of grace and subject to concupiscence, we are not entirely depraved. Much remains that is beautiful, including our loyal affection for another and our desires for food, shelter, security, knowledge, companionship and procreation. We have an inbred longing for holiness, truth, beauty and goodness that may be suppressed by sin but can never be extinguished.
In the Book of Ruth a fine young woman comes to the knowledge of God by her devotion to her mother-in-law. Grace builds on the Moabite’s natural affection to initiate her into the Jewish race and religion. Grace will further enrich Ruth as she becomes the great-grandmother of King David and the ancestor of Jesus. 

Even those churches that teach a harsher relationship between grace and nature often use their affinity, as when they form societies for young people. Do the boys and girls come together to meet the Lord, or to check out one another? I suspect it’s the latter! But never mind, God does wonders with our natural impulses, building them into temples of his Holy Spirit. Let’s not miss those opportunities of grace.