Memorial of Saint Jerome, priest and doctor of the Church

Firelight on flagstones
Justice is with the Lord, our God;
and we today are flushed with shame,
we men of Judah and citizens of Jerusalem,
that we, with our kings and rulers
and priests and prophets, and with our ancestors,
have sinned in the Lord's sight and disobeyed him.

People sometimes doubt the reality of sin although they still believe in God. But to know the Lord one must be baptized, and that is to own and confess one’s own sin. There can be no relationship with God that does not recognize the hard realities of personal and communal sin. It's not that we must sin, or that to be human is to be sinful. We can't beg off with that excuse. We do sin and there's no excuse for it. 

The realization of our guilt begins with that statement above, “Justice is with the Lord, our God.” Even those who deny the existence of God usually have a sense of justice. They know that some things are just not right. Though killing in wartime may be necessary, murder is wrong. Though a marriage may have lost its luster, infidelity is still wrong. Even unmarried couples complain about infidelity, though that sounds oxymoronic to this aging priest.

In the presence of God we must admit, Justice is with the Lord our God, and we are flushed with shame.Especially when we stand before the Crucified Lord, seeing his gentleness and compassion, we feel shame mingled with bitter regret.

To own one’s sin I have to admit to myself and to others, “I didn’t have to do that. I have no excuse.” Being insane with desire hardly counts as a reason for irrational behavior; I am responsible for my own arousal. Loss of courage is only another word for cowardice. I had choices; I chose one of the worst.

The Hebrew prophets wrenched the Jewish tradition away from every tendency to compromise with injustice. They demanded what is only reasonable but too often eludes rational people: care for widows and orphans, hospitality to aliens and strangers, and deference to the elderly, sick and disabled, especially the poor. 
If the people of Israel and Judah would call themselves The People of God they must act with God’s principles of justice and mercy.
The Hebrew prophets knew that sin sabotages every institution of human life. The clever human mind is too subtle for its own constructions; we cannot create an institution or a system inoculated against evil. Even the priesthood -- both of Ancient Jerusalem and today's Church -- is compromised.
Finally the prophets assured the people of God’s mercy. If we will own our sins – especially our sins against justice and mercy – and attempt to make amends, God readily forgives us. 

Feast of Saint Michael, Saint Gabriel and Saint Raphael, archangels
War broke out in heaven;
Michael and his angels battled against the dragon.
The dragon and its angels fought back,
but they did not prevail
and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.

    Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
    Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
    The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
    And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
    The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
    No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
    So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.

    So have I heard and do in part believe it.
                                     Hamlet: Act 1, Scene 1

The ancients saw signs of God's sovereign presence in the night sky and morning dew. Cloud patterns and flights of birds conveyed subtle messages to attentive believers. The world was, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out like shining from shook foil.

In all that wonder angels found a ready place. They were God's courtiers and messengers. They travelled at the speed of thought to the farthest reaches of the universe to execute God's will. Rapt in wonder at God's beauty, holiness and authority they were always eager to serve the Father or the Son or the Holy Spirit.

Modernity has stripped the heavens of its wonder. Telescopes probe the skies and discover marvelous beauty and fascinating chemistries, but they find no angels. Powerful rockets loaded with robotic instruments and disciplined astronauts punch holes through the firmament, returning with news of vast emptiness. Despite our persistent and eager curiosity, they tell us there is no place beyond the Earth where human beings might thrive. Our heaven must be here -- or no where.

And yet people report visitations by angels. These mysterious creatures appear, often in human form, and intervene in our affairs. My dear friend Father Howard, God rest his soul, spoke of his last Mass before he went to treatment for alcoholism. He had stumbled through the Mass in a whiskey fog, humiliating himself and scandalizing his congregation. As he finished the ceremony and walked down the center aisle, a little old woman -- "whom I never saw before and never saw again" -- pointed her finger at him and said, "Shame! Shame!" That night he called the Provincial; the next day he was in treatment. He never drank again. An angel? He thought so.

On this feasts of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael we remember that all creation worships God; and that all was created "through him and for him," (Him being Jesus.) Despite the flattened earth and sky that secular science would give to us, we discern many deep dimensions in the world around us. It is saturated with spirits who serve the Lord of Heaven and Earth.

Wednesday of the Twenty-Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

How could I not look sad
when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins,
and its gates have been eaten out by fire?"

Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests,
but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head."

Saint Augustine said it as well as anyone ever has: Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.

A few weeks ago the New Yorker Magazine ran a speculative article about the evolution of homo sapiens and our relationship with neanderthal man. There seems to have been little difference between the two species of great apes. If a neanderthal man were to be dressed in suit and tie and walking along Wall Street in New York City today, he would stir little interest around him.
The difference between the species may be more spiritual. We have a tendency to do crazy things like exploring vast oceans in canoes and building towers to see over the horizon. We're also given to caring for one another, even at the risk of our individual wellbeing.
Soon after I read the article, my brother remarked, "You know, there are a lot of crazy people around." I had to agree with him. It seems like every group I've joined or worked with has a disproportionate number of oddballs. Eventually I might conclude, "Everybody is crazy but you and me and I'm not so sure about you."

If I were to put a theological spin on this observation, homo sapiens is eternally restless, discontent, searching for something more than we have. Although we are earthlings and cannot live anywhere else, we don't really belong here either. If we experience any satisfaction, it's only for the moment. And whatever that momentary pleasure was, it wasn't emough. Once is never enough. We want more.

Nehemiah, in his privileged position of wine steward to the Emperor Artaxerxes, could not hide his misery even in the presence of the Sovereign. Nor could Artaxerxes ignore his subordinate's unhappiness; his heart was moved with pity for the homesick Jew. He might have regarded him as an ungrateful alien, considering all the luxury and perquisites the wine steward should enjoy; but instead he felt compassion for a fellow human being, and sent him on a mission to rebuild Jerusalem.

Jesus also knew that heartsickness, perhaps even more acutely. His being God did not exempt him from the ache of longing.

Our gravest danger is the temptation to satisfy ourselves with things less than God; and to pursue one pleasure after another, and one privilege after another in the vain attempt to be happy.  Nothing in this world is worth such devotion. We must finally be content in our discontent, confident that God will satisfy our longing, full measure and flowing over.

Memorial of Saint Vincent de Paul, priest

Many peoples and strong nations shall come
to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem
and to implore the favor of the LORD.

We have preached the doctrine of God’s availability so often and with such conviction people sometimes suppose that God is just as reliable as gravity. His love and mercy are mechanical; ask for it and Bingo! You’ve got it!

But the scriptures also tell us to “seek the Lord.” Perhaps the Lord is more like water or wind. Sometimes the well is dry; sometimes the wind doesn’t blow. With inadequate words we try to understand God and we say God is like a person, with free will and self-determination. You can’t just go through life blithely ignoring God’s invitations and challenges and count His being there for you on your deathbed. There are two in this conversation, and both are free to enter or withdraw from it. 

And so we “seek the Lord.” In today’s gospel we hear of Jesus’ setting his face for Jerusalem. He will seek the Lord of Hosts in Jerusalem, and there he will implore the favor of the Lord. 
Jesus explained why he was going to Jerusalem -- “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.” -- but his disciples had a hard time getting it. 
Why would anyone seek the Lord in suffering, rejection and death? Is it because we often find him there? 

I was hit by a truck during Lent of 1993. I wrote the following of my experience: 

I holy weeked in a hospital bed
And saw the services
From below the surface of my suffering
Through the television;
I wondered at those men
Who walked on the dry land of comfort,
Who sang songs
And read readings
And kissed crosses,
But could not call to me
Beneath the surface of my suffering.
They seemed like men on an island
-- or a continent –-
in the middle of a continent --
far from the vast waters of pain
that gird our world, that washed over me.

Our Earth, they say, should be called “Water”
And our lives should be called “Pain”;
But we spend most of our lives
On the dry land of comfort
Hardly aware of those who
Lie beneath the surface of their suffering
And gaze on us with glassy eyes.

We often prefer not to find God where we are, in our pain, frustration or disappointment, until Jesus teaches us to seek the Lord even in Jerusalem. 

Monday of the Twenty-Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

The Onset of Autumn
noon 9/5/2011
Even if this should seem impossible
in the eyes of the remnant of this people,
shall it in those days be impossible in my eyes also,
says the LORD of hosts?

We read the prophecies of Zechariah as hope for all who believe in the Lord. Their original intent was  to comfort and reassure the people of Jerusalem. Days of prosperity and security will come; God has promised it. 
Though their original intent may seem narrow and nationalistic, we do well to read them as hope for everyone who turns to God. We have seen Christianity spread to all parts of the Earth; we have seen people of every tribe, nation and language invested in the white robes of salvation. Through Baptism the Lord  has claimed them for his own. Can there be any limit to the purposes, majesty and love of God? 
No doubt there were skeptics even among the survivors who had returned to the hill of Zion to rebuild Jerusalem. In the ensuing years their struggle had devolved from the expectation of prosperity to bare survival. 
And yet here was a prophet cheering his people on with the persistence of his faith:
"Sure it seems impossible to you. If you could manage it you wouldn't need God! All the more reason to expect great things because nothing is impossible for our God. He claims Jerusalem and its people for his own. Watch and wait! You will see great things!" 
No mortal can see the Big Picture of God's intent. We are like nothing more than small bugs on an enormous tapestry. It encompasses all nations of all time. You and I live for only a few years; but history may continue for thousands of years after us. Very soon our names will be written in bronze or stone on burial markers, and shortly after that those markers will be scoured into illegibility by the sands of time. No living soul will remember our names or our contributions. Should I suppose I have a right to  understand and approve of God's methods and God's plans? 
I will be satisfied to know God. That satisfaction runs deeper than any Divine Apologia I might suppose I am owed. 

Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

If these dolls could talk,
what stories would they tell? 
Your ways, O LORD, make known to me;
teach me your paths,
guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my savior.

The secular mind, when it thinks of God at all, supposes God's ways are too mysterious for the mind of man. As Alexander Pope said, 
         Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
         The proper study of Mankind is Man. 

Many rational philosophers have lost all interest in God, leaving the conversation open to irrationality. But God's ways are not necessarily irrational or inaccessible. The wisdom of the cross, of which Saint Paul speaks, is not nonsense; rather it is a deeper insight into reality through the mystery of the cross. 

Can sorrow be comforting? Can enemies be forgiven? Can tragedy, shame or guilt be integrated into a harmonious understanding of one's life? Can death make life more beautiful and meaningful? Is death both ending and beginning? Is it true that the door to freedom is through obedience and that willfulness leads only to slavery? Only the mystery of the cross can answer such questions. 

But first we should say a word about mystery. In modern parlance, mysteries should be solved. The mystery genre of TV shows, movies and novels lead to a reasonable, sometimes predictable, solution. Even horror films and novels often discover a solution. (I found the one Steven King novel I read very disappointing for that reason. His afterlife is just another dimension from which dead people pester living people! Horror, it seems to me, should leave us delightfully anxious about opening that closet door or venturing into the basement.) 

But we seem to be cautiously entering a post-secular, post-scientific age when people want a mysterious edge to their experience of life. Young people fancy themselves Goth and dabble in the black arts, although Gothic architecture introduced brilliant, rapturous light into medieval churches. Romantic images of warriors, princesses and dragons populate both past and future fantasies. People openly speculate about ghosts. (One Veteran told me "There's an app for that!" It will detect ghosts within a few feet of your smartphone.) People swear they have been visited by angels and many attest to life-in-death experiences when they saw a brilliant light as they lay dying in a hospital. 

Science, of course, has no answer for these speculative ideas. It plods on its weary way, predicting climate change while millions blithely ignore them. At one time scientists were the high priests of our culture; but, despite their astonishing and ongoing technological breakthroughs, people continue to believe that evolution is only a theory and smoking won't hurt my lungs and peach pits cure cancer. Perhaps they want their mystery back and that's why they cling to biblical fundamentalism, conspiracy theories and other nonsense. They want the thrill of unknown, uncontrollable forces lurking under the bed. 

Our faith teaches us the mysterious wisdom of the cross. It is neither "blind faith" nor foolish naivete. Rather, the cross teaches us the ways of God. Taking up our crosses daily, as Jesus directs us, we learn to accept the things we cannot change, to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. We stop asking "Why did this happen?" and learn to wait in silence for grace to comfort, heal and make sense of life. 

God's wisdom -- a mysterious, hidden wisdom (I Cor 2:7) -- is both practical and visionary. It honors the immediate crisis without ignoring the long term consequences. We can discuss birth control, marriage and health care, confident that reasonable people of good will understand "natural law." Wisdom helps the stressed individual to care for herself even as she tends to the needs of those around her. It foresees ways for a nation to care for its poor, sick, disabled, aging and unborn without financial ruin. It navigates diplomatic relations with less powerful nations frankly and without arrogance.  

God's wisdom is not given to the cowardly, lazy or stupid; it demands courage, willingness, commitment and surrender. It sometimes must reveal skeletons hidden in those dark closets, but it also promises light to a people who live in darkness.

Saturday of the Twenty-Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

While they were all amazed at his every deed,
Jesus said to his disciples,
"Pay attention to what I am telling you."

The Gospel of Saint Luke often describes the amazement (15x) and astonishment (5x) Jesus aroused in his disciples, his parents, the crowds and his enemies.
I suppose people like to be amazed nowadays. It's rather entertaining; and offers temporary respite from the humdrum of our routine lives. But, beyond entertainment, I'd venture to say we don't have much use for it. We don't expect it to change our lives, and would frankly prefer that it not. 
If we want to change our lives we'll move out of town, go back to school, get a new job or start a new relationship with someone. 

But what does a religious person does with it? 
First, we cultivate our ability to be amazed. We don't just look for amazement as entertainment; as in: Look at the Grand Canyon; isn't that amazing? There are billions and billions of stars; isn't that amazing? Google can answer your crossword puzzle question in 2.1 seconds; isn't that amazing? 
Rather, we cultivate the ability to be amazed by noticing the simpler things in life: breathing, eating, walking, seeing, touching and so forth. 
We cultivate amazement by reading the words of scripture; something like, "Jesus passed by the sea of Galilee." (Mark 1:16)
Then we remember that the expression "passing by" recalls God's passing by Moses on Mount Sinai and Elijah on Mount Horeb. When Mark and Matthew say "Jesus passed by..." they're recalling the recognizable action of God. Look again! There is God passing by the Sea of Galilee. That's why the fishermen dropped their nets and abandoned their father and followed the Lord. That's why the crowds followed Jesus up the mountain, bringing their sick, lame, blind and possessed loved one with them. 

Amazement is the way God speaks to us! So now let's go to Church and hear the Eucharistic Prayer, "This is my body.... This is my blood." Amazement transports us into mystery and a life changing place. We cannot go back to our lives and work and families the same people. We have been profoundly changed by "what we have seen and heard." (I John 1) 

The secular mindset deflates amazement into an amusing, carnival experience; and doesn't even remember the original meaning of carnival: that it gave everyone a healthy dose of reality by temporarily humbling the proud (kings and bishops) and lifting up the lowly (serfs and peasants). 

You might recall that Sherlock Holmes had no use for "useless" information, like the size of the Solar System or the number of planets. Dr. Watson was surprised that his hero knew nothing of such wonders. But Mr. Holmes was the great secular thinker who used only methodical rationality to solve his "mysteries." Mysteries for Holmes were problems to be solved; not portals into God's world. He could not see "the world in a grain of sand" nor Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. 

The amazement of Jesus' disciples prepared them to hear something horrifying, mysterious and beautiful: "Pay attention to what I am telling you. The Son of Man is to be handed over to men."

Memorial of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, priest

Saint (Padre) Pio
Then he said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"
Peter said in reply, "The Christ of God."
He rebuked them and directed them not to tell this to anyone.

Saint Luke's account of Peter's confession of faith has a very different feel from those of Saint Mark and Saint Matthew. It is followed by Jesus' rebuke. 
Luke 9 has raised the question, "Who is Jesus?" The tetrarch Herod wants to know. The crowds are speculating; is he Elijah, John the Baptist, or another prophet? 

Peter's reply is correct by the catechism. He is the "Christ of God," but does anyone know what that means? Certainly his disciples do not. They cannot imagine and we struggle to imagine what messiah and anointed mean.

I meet a lot of Veterans in the hospital who were well trained in their catechism. But when they left the shelters of school, home and church they quickly forgot all the right answers they had "been forced to memorized." 
Without the support of a living community the old answers meant nothing. Hard experience and harder teachers taught them different beliefs about life. 
Jesus instruction of his disciples did not end with Peter's declaration. Rather, he taught them the meaning of "Christ" with his suffering and death. This was something beyond their imagination. Nothing in their religious training had taught them God might suffer with them. They could not imagine the death of the Messiah, and some naturally resisted the teaching. 
But Jesus was persistent and insistent. Even yet they could not understand until they became willing to take up their own "crosses" each day and follow in his steps. 
The catechism, like the Bible, is a good start on life, but without discipleship it leads nowhere. Let us pray that parents, families and catechists will "disciple" children in the fellowship of Jesus; and that he will still "discipline" us. 

Thursday of the Twenty-Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

This people says:
"The time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD."
(Then this word of the LORD came through Haggai, the prophet:)
Is it time for you to dwell in your own paneled houses,
while this house lies in ruins?”
I often hear the complaint from unchurched Christians that priests and ministers only care about money.  They feel excluded because they don’t support their belief in God with real sacrifice. The faithful know better. Like everything else in life, religion requires sacrifice and a willingness to support the infrastructure to flourish.  
In today’s first reading the prophet Haggai urges the people to set to work rebuilding their temple. A “remnant” has returned from the Babylonian Exile to find their ancient city in ruins. With government support they have rebuilt their homes, roads, bridges and marketplaces but have neglected to build a house for God. Consequently, he tells them,
You have sown much, but have brought in little;
you have eaten, but have not been satisfied;
You have drunk, but have not been exhilarated;
have clothed yourselves, but not been warmed;
And whoever earned wages
earned them for a bag with holes in it.
The fact is we can’t afford not to build the infrastructures our faith requires. Children take for granted the sacrifices their parents make for them; they can imagine neither how much their parents love them nor how much they cost to feed, house, clothe, educate and protect – much less amuse.
Adults, on the other hand, take responsibility for the gifts they receive. They understand that nothing comes without sacrifice and the most important gifts they enjoy are the ones others hardly notice – roads, bridges, water-, gas- and sewage-lines.  Even clean air and water have their costs. Adults know that money is not for entertainment but to sustain life. Religious adults know they cannot afford not to sacrifice substantial amounts of money for their faith.  

Feast of Saint Matthew, Apostle and evangelist

Another cake winner
The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples,
"Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?"
He heard this and said,
"Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.
Go and learn the meaning of the words,
I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
I did not come to call the righteous but sinners."

I rank my books in four ways: 

  • those I give away; 
  • those I lend and don't want back; those I lend and do want back; and 
  • those I don't lend. 

One of my never-loans is the Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind:
"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."
In the beginner's mind there is no thought, "I have attained something." All self‑centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something. The beginner's mind is the mind of compassion. When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless. Dogen‑zenji, the founder of our school, always emphasized how important it is to resume our boundless original mind. Then we are always true to ourselves, in sympathy with all beings, and can actually practice.So the most difficult thing is always to keep your beginner's mind. There is no need to have a deep understanding of Zen. Even though you read much Zen literature, you must read each sentence with a fresh mind. You should not say, "I know what Zen is," or "I have attained enlightenment." This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner. (from the prologue)
I see a similarity between the "righteous" of whom Jesus speaks and Suzuki's "expert," who has only two or three ideas. The expert has a firm grasp of his ideas; he owns them. But he doesn't realize they own him. 

Jesus clearly preferred the company of "tax collectors and sinners." These were the unredeemed, the unwashed, the illiterate who lived beyond the pale of the self-assured righteous. They flocked to him, carrying their sick, possessed, blind, lame and leprous -- all the untouchable masses of pathetic humanity whom the Pharisees avoided. The poor had no strong opinions about holiness or correctness. They couldn't tell a doctrine from a docquet. But they knew Jesus had authority to heal and forgive and they rushed to him. 

So must we rush to Jesus. As we approach him we're likely to find ourselves swept up in a flood of humanity, and swept away from all the self-assured, credentialed, opinionated authorities who occasionally bestow social standing upon us. Our cool rationality might be overwhelmed by warm gratitude and blazing admiration for God's Goodness. 
Finally, the wretched of the earth will lead us to Jesus who will ask for nothing more than our entire lives. 

Memorial of Korean Saints and Martyrs
Moms have fun too! 

He said to them in reply, "My mother and my brothers
are those who hear the word of God and act on it."

Saint Mark's gospel accentuates Jesus' isolation. The "Lion of Judah" who demonstrates the radical freedom of God as he heals thousands, walks on trouble seas, and defies religious authorities, finally allows himself to be arrested, condemned, tortured and crucified. Abandoned by family, friends and God himself, he dies in horrible agony. 
So when Mark tells of today's incident, his "mother and brothers" intend to bring Jesus back to Capernaum and silence him. 

Saint Luke presents a more congenial reception. His Jerusalem is not as hostile as that of Saint Matthew. Women will accompany Jesus even to Calvary, offering their comforting presence. God will appear in the person of an angel, offering succor in Gethsemane. And, in this passage, Jesus' mother and brothers "came to him." They would remain with him through his suffering and death until Pentecost, when they joined the disciples in the Cenacle. 

His response is to open his family to all believers. Raymond Brown, one of the greatest of American scripture scholars, finds evidence in the New Testament that Jesus' family may have jockeyed for leadership in the early church. But, he says, Jesus' chosen disciples prevailed. The mini-controversy served to accentuate the new way Christians relate to one another. We are "family" only in a metaphorical sense. 

I met a priest once whose entire parish consisted of one family. More than a century ago one fellow and his houseful of sons claimed a large New Mexican tract of land. Their descendants still live there and everyone in town is related. Newcomers may move in but they'll never belong. 
I've also heard of eastern orthodox churches who welcome only those who speak their language. Even in America their priests would rather not receive outsiders. 
Unfortunately, both groups imperil their standing as Christian. When the Salt of the Gospel belongs exclusively to one racial, ethnic or language group it loses it savor and is good for nothing. 

And so Jesus' family must be content to wait outside. They can join him not because they are blood kin, but because they worship him as God. Mary did precisely that, and Saint Luke honors her as the first disciple to hear the Gospel from the Angel Gabriel. Christians of every time and place emulate her humble, open-hearted generosity to the shepherds, the Magi, the elders in the Temple and to the soldiers on Calvary. 

Monday of the Twenty-Fifth Week in Ordinary Time


"Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia:
'All the kingdoms of the earth
the LORD, the God of heaven, has given to me,
and he has also charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem,
which is in Judah.
Therefore, whoever among you belongs to any part of his people,
let him go up, and may his God be with him!

Biblical authors cannot imagine a world in which God does not direct everything -- from the flow of the winds and tides to the movements of people. The Lord is especially the Lord of History, and his will is for Salvation.

Often on Friday night, several friars here at Mount Saint Francis like to settle into the evening with a pack of twenty-four cards to play euchre. As we've come to recognize the unconscious preferences and signals of each player, and as our skills have improved over these many months, the winners and losers are chosen by the luck of the draw. We might joke about the winner having said his prayers, but we don't suppose God favors any one of us. It's neither skill nor divine favor, it's only luck. If we were pagans we might speak of "Lady Luck." 
The ancient Jews knew nothing of luck or fate or karma; they played no games. I find none in the Bible until Saint Paul's reference to Greek foot races. David's contest with Goliath might resemble a game but God directed David's sling and pebble; despite all appearances Goliath never had a chance. Everything that happens, happens because God wills it so. 

So when the Emperor Cyrus decreed that the Jews should return to their homeland and rebuild their temple, that was clearly God's acting on their behalf. It was a free and generous act of God, regardless of Cyrus's religious or political motives. 

In this 21st century, the secular mindset teaches that God has lost interest in human affairs. He directs neither our euchre game nor the Arab Spring. He does not care which party controls Congress or whether snail darters go extinct. If Texas suffers a drought and New Jersey is flooded, those are human problems; matters for which man, not God, is responsible. 

But the faithful Christian, the Muslim and the Jew still watch for God's mercy in human and natural events. I see God's mercy in the hope of sick and suffering Veterans; I see God's majesty in the morning sky; I see God's presence in the Blessed Sacrament. The secularist will speculate that even my sense of awe can be explained by evolution; but I will see God's hand in evolution. As Saint Paul said: 
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.  Romans 8:28-30

Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

MSF Picnic fun
I wrote a meditation on today's gospel passage recently, so I'll address the second reading today.

Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death.
For to me life is Christ, and death is gain.
If I go on living in the flesh,
that means fruitful labor for me.
And I do not know which I shall choose. 
I am caught between the two. 

The Greek word to describe Saint Paul's attitude is apatheia, which sounds like apathy but is something quite different. Apatheia is that open, willing spirit which stands ready to obey whatever the Lord wants. 

Saint Paul wrote this letter to the Philippians from a jail cell. He did not know he would ever walk free. He has to consider the possibility of death. Without the medical sciences and medical establishment that we take for granted, death was always near at hand in a first century Roman jail. Well into the twentieth century, people often wrote letters to one another inquiring after their health and informing loved ones of their own good (or failing) health. 

Saint Paul firmly believed in the Resurrection of the Dead. He brought his own Pharisaic tradition to that belief and added his personal belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead and now lives. He also brought his assurance that Jesus had called him to announce the Gospel of Resurrection to the nations. He was sure of God's mercy for himself and his beloved disciples in every city he had visited. So he looked forward to an eternity of bliss with his dear Lord. 
But there was so much yet to be done! How many thousands of people? How many cities and nations had not yet heard the name of Jesus?  Though he was imprisoned and perhaps wasting in a prison cell, he wanted to keep going. Which should he prefer? 

...I do not know which I shall choose. I am caught between the two. 
His eager indecision, his willingness to let God be God and make the decision for him is what the ancients called apatheia, a holy indifference. 

This attitude is learned partly from Hindu and Buddhist traditions. The Buddha's great insight is that suffering rises from desire and freedom from suffering is freedom from desire. 
But the Christian also wants intensely! We want the Kingdom of God. We pray daily "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven! Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses...."
Willingly we take upon ourselves the burden of Christ's suffering, that painful longing for justice and mercy for every human soul. We cannot be satisfied with personal salvation; we want it for everyone. 

Working in our provincial Development Office I read dozens of letters every day, asking God, Saint Anthony and Saint Pio (Padre Pio) to hear the prayers of wounded, hurting souls. They pray for health, job security, the faith of their children and healing for their loved ones. The list is endless and will remain endless until the end of time. We don't want to be free of longing, we want our longings satisfied! 
Apatheia, then, is the willingness to wait on God's mercy. It will come and we will wait until it comes. World without end, Amen. That's what we call faith

Saturday of the Twenty-Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Cake booth winners
I charge you before God, who gives life to all things,
and before Christ Jesus,
who gave testimony under Pontius Pilate
for the noble confession,
to keep the commandment without stain or reproach
until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ....

Saint Paul uses strong language as he speaks to his protegee and friend Timothy: I charge you before God!" It's a language of command we expect to hear only in the military, and most of the Veterans I meet are content to leave it there, though some of them quail before a former basic training sergeant if they happen to run into him twenty years later. 
Despite the expectations of many, we don't hear that kind of language in religious life very often either. Rarely does a provincial command a brother, friar or sister to undertake a certain task. He or she more often asks and suggests and perhaps urges. Only in desperate cases will the superior "charge you before God." 
But Saint Paul's demand on Saint Timothy does remind us of the rightful authority of the Church in some matters. 
Sometimes divorced people who want to remarry in the Church are stunned at the priest's refusal to conduct the wedding. They think religion is strictly "spiritual" and has no authority in the "real" world of marriage. They are more surprised to hear he lacks the authority to conduct such a wedding. 
Sometimes people are astonished to feel our disapproval of adultery, abortion, drug abuse and suicide. Who are we to have opinions in "private" matters? They say the Church should "stay out of the bedroom!" 
Saint Paul, living in the first century of the Common Era, knew nothing of "spirituality" or "privacy." These words evolved recently and their meanings are in constant flux. But he did know the authority of the Holy Spirit in his own life, and the authority of the Body of Christ which extended from Jerusalem to Rome and beyond. He instinctively knew he could not preach the Gospel without the approval of Cephas (Saint Peter) and the other apostles. When a controversy arose he traveled to Jerusalem to settle the matter within the community; he would not strike out on his own. Such a divisive move would have been unthinkable to him. 
To this day the Catholic Church struggles to maintain our unity. We urge every Catholic from pope to priest to those in the pews to ask God for the Spirit of Obedience. Every person must be ready to surrender his own opinion in favor of our common unity. In its time his or her opinion may prevail but that time might not arrive for many years hence. In the meanwhile we must remain within the Body of Christ. Our humble obedience more closely resembles the Crucified than anything else we do in life, and is far more effective. "Blind faith" which operates in darkness sees more clearly the brilliant light of God. 

Memorial of Saint Cornelius, pope and martyr and Saint Cyprian, bishop and martyr

Indeed, religion with contentment is a great gain.
For we brought nothing into the world,
just as we shall not be able to take anything out of it.
If we have food and clothing, we shall be content with that.
Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and into a trap

As I study the scriptures, minister in the hospital among Veterans and their loved ones, and live within a Franciscan community, I become less and less convinced of my personal salvation. I am not convinced that Jesus saves us "one soul at a time." 
Rather he saves us by the gathering us into fellowship with one another. We are saved all together; we are lost one by one. 

For many the spiritual significance of money resembles their personal salvation. It's about "how much can I get?" and "how much am I worth?" 

Idealistic young Christians sometimes begin by wondering how much virtue can I acquire. But with experience and disappointment, realizing that there are no measures of virtue and little to show for it, they turn to more measurable quantities like money. Personal salvation becomes personal money. If you close one eye and squint the other in just the right way a pile of money can look like happiness.  
Religion, as Saint Paul describes it, is what we do together. It is a source of great gain because one finds contentment in the family, neighbors, church, work and life she has been given. If we have "food and clothing" we are content.
The urge to be rich is a useless passion. With all due respect to the Duchess of Windsor, one can be too rich and too thin. Wealth can only lead to anxiety about losing one's possessions. Saint Francis and the poor of the earth have assured us, "The less you have the closer you are to Christ." 

Our Lady of Sorrows

Following the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, we remember Our Lady of Sorrows. On Sunday the United States and many of our allies observed the tenth anniversary of the Al Qaeda attack upon the United States. Ten years later we remember the shock and horror, the upheaval and disorientation, the perplexity and grief we felt as New Yorkers and Pentagon workers sifted through the rubble, looking for survivors.
In retrospect we realize “nine eleven” was not the beginning of anything. Little good has come of it; and we still don’t know how to relate to the new reality in which we live. Our response of war to a criminal act was too predictable, and predictably futile. Had we been willing to stay in our grief longer, deferring the impulse to revenge, we might have experienced a deeper solidarity with sorrowing and suffering nations around the world. We might have felt the response of sympathy and solidarity many people extended to us. We might have addressed the sources of the tragedy with them and found a better response. Had we done so, many people would be alive today. 
Our Lady of Sorrows reminds us that Jesus’ mother did not attempt to avenge herself upon the Roman soldiers or the Jewish authorities. She did not gather Jesus’ disciples around herself to arouse jihad or a crusade. Rather, she waited in a Cloud of Unknowing and trusted that, despite everything she had seen and felt, God is good.
It is still not too late to sit with her in our sorrow, waiting on the mercy of God to appear.

Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Friends gather at the Picnic
A new prayer for Jesus

Saint Francis of Assisi drew great inspiration from Saint Paul’s song of Jesus Christ found in today’s second reading. It describes the total self-emptying of Jesus in love to God the Father. Helplessly bound with his hands and feet stretched to the limits of the wood; suspended naked before the taunting mobs and silent God; shedding the last drop of his blood and exhaling his last breath: the man had nothing left to give except his pain. Surrendering even that to God, he died.
This is how the most foolish saint of all time wanted to live and die. Peering through the horror of Jesus’ cross as none ever had, Francis saw the glory of God.
Some years ago I began to recite this song often, but I’ve rewritten it as a prayer:
Though you were in the form of God,
you did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, you emptied yourself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
you humbled yourself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted you
and bestowed on you the name
that is above every name,
that at your name of Jesus
every knee should bend
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord
to the glory of God the Father.

Memorial of Saint John Chrysostom

The dead man sat up and began to speak,
and Jesus gave him to his mother.
As a pastor in Jennings Louisiana I created my own scriptural rosary for funeral wakes. I had heard a radio preacher enthuse: “Jesus never attended a funeral that he didn’t change the program!” And so, rather than the usual meditations, I chose gospel stories about funerals. This one from Luke’s gospel occupied the first decade.
(Before each Hail Mary, I read the first part of each verse and the congregation responded with the second):
V. Jesus journeyed to a city called Nain,
R. and his disciples and a large crowd accompanied him.
V. As he drew near to the gate of the city,
R. a dead man was being carried out,
V. He was the only son of his mother,
R. and she was a widow.
V. When the Lord saw her,
R. he was moved with pity for her.
V. He said to her,
R. "Do not weep."
V. He stepped forward and touched the coffin; the bearers halted and he said,
R.  "Young man, I tell you, arise!"
V. The dead man sat up and began to speak,
R. and Jesus gave him to his mother.
V. Fear seized them all,
R. and they glorified God,
V. They said, "A great prophet has arisen in our midst,"
R. and "God has visited his people."
V. This report about him spread through the whole of Judea
R. and in all the surrounding region.
The raising of Jairus’ daughter was the second; the third, Lazarus; and the fourth, Easter. That left only one more decade which I filled with verses from Revelation, “The Song of the Lamb.”
Jesus still “changes the program” of our funerals. Where we might have expected gloom and despair, we find hope in God’s promises.