Memorial of Saint John Bosco, Priest

Ice forming on Lake MSF
She said, "If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured."
Immediately her flow of blood dried up.
She felt in her body that she was healed of her affliction.
Jesus, aware at once that power had gone out from him,
turned around in the crowd and asked, "Who has touched my clothes?"

Ordinarily, in the Jewish practice of that time, physical contact with a menstruous woman or a corpse rendered a man impure. He could not take his meal with his family, attend the synagogue or temple, or engage in other religious activities. Impure was not necessarily, or even usually, sinful; but it required a devout Jew to go through the rituals of purification before resuming his pious practices. Not to do so would be sacrilege.
But in today’s gospel Jesus engages in two impure activities: he is touched by a menstruous woman and he takes the hand of a dead girl. In both cases, cleanliness flows from him and heals the ailing persons. This is more than an unusual incident; it is the dissolution of the entire tradition of clean and unclean.
By discarding this peculiar custom the Christian religion could leave its Jewish origins and move into the gentile world, inviting everyone to know and believe in the Jewish messiah.
Today’s two stories also, and perhaps more importantly, signal the Christian’s new appreciation for women. In all four gospels Jesus consistently shows affection and respect for women. Some, like the Samaritan woman at the well, Mary Magdalene, and the sisters Martha and Mary of Bethany, seems to be disciples of Jesus. The early church not only recognized the role of women in announcing the resurrection of Jesus, it honored those women who moved throughout the Roman Empire proclaiming the gospel. 

In the first chapter of Saint Mark's Gospel we have glimpsed Jesus as the new Adam. He lived for a while “among the wild animals” in the desert as Adam and Eve had lived. By his touching and being touched by women, and by his wonderful healings we see him radically reshaping the human family. There should no longer be unfair distinctions of gender. No longer will a husband rule over his wife or a woman’s lust bind her to slavery. These were the ravages of sin. (Genesis 3: 16) In God's kingdom, husband and wife will be free, as Adam and Eve were created free, to love each other generously, eagerly and with healthy dignity.

Monday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

In table conversation one of the friars spoke of a "goat shepherd." The word you are looking for, I told him, is goatherd. "Oh my gosh," he said, "Goatherd, of course, as in 'High on a hill was a lonely goatherd, lay odl lay odl lay hee hoo.'" 
There are swineherds too, as we hear in today's gospel. And cowherds. But no catherds. I thought you'd like to know. 

As David was approaching Bahurim,
a man named Shimei, the son of Gera
of the same clan as Saul's family,
was coming out of the place, cursing as he came.
He threw stones at David and at all the king's officers,
even though all the soldiers, including the royal guard,
were on David's right and on his left.

In both readings today we encounter an insane man, and in both stories we hear of  compassion for  him. 

I often visit the psychiatric ward at the VA hospital and have gotten to know many of the Veterans. Over the past four years I have seen several men come back repeatedly. They're hardly gone two weeks before their back again. Sometimes we chaplains wonder if there is more we could and should do for these suffering individuals. Clearly, there is not much they can do for themselves. They're hardly out  in the increasingly complex world of joblessness and family dysfunction before their back again. Sometime we wonder if a cure will ever be found for bi-polar disorder, the current word for schizophrenia. 

But the older I get and  the more I see, the more I suspect that everyone is just a little bit crazy, and many are more than a little bit. Having been three times treated for mental illness, (and needing it on at least  two other occasions,) I have seen a lot of that other side of life. 

If everyone is a little bit crazy,  perhaps that madness is what makes us truly human. Much to the disappointment of philosophers, we are neither homo sapiens nor homo economicus. We waste a lot; we go off on foolish ventures; we eat the wrong stuff, drink the wrong stuff, and glut ourselves with bizarre ideas. Who first thought of building a boat and sailing over the horizon? What was he thinking? But he found Alaska and Australia and Hawaii. Who built a tower so high as to defy God, and ended up babbling in a thousand foreign languages? But each language is beautiful in its own way. Who really believes there is a reason to go to Mars, or that we might populate exoplanets? But we'll do it, or try to do it, and think of a reason later on! 

Insanity is what makes the human being creative, charming, desirable and beautiful in God's sight. 

In the meanwhile, we need these madmen and madwomen among us. They are us, and showing  compassion to them is self-compassion. Both David and Jesus felt deeply for these suffering  souls, for they recognized tormented brothers just like themselves: 
‘Amen, I say to you, what you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Moses spoke to all the people, saying:
"A prophet like me will the LORD, your God, raise up for you
from among your own kin;
to him you shall listen.

The Book of Deuteronomy contains a promise that is completely different from the messianic hope expressed  in other books of the Old Testament, yet it is of decisive importance for understanding the figure of Jesus. 
Thus begins Pope Benedict's first volume of his wonderful Jesus of Nazareth. He continues: 
The object of this promise is not a king of Israel and king of the world -- a new David, in other words -- but a new Moses. Moses himself, however, is interpreted as a prophet. 
The Holy Father's book opened my eyes to the ministry of Jesus as prophet. Further reading of Abraham Joseph Heschl's The Prophets deepened my understanding of Jesus and the role of the Church in the world today. 

It seems the people in Capernaum were equally unprepared for a prophet when Jesus "taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes." They were "astonished" at his teaching. 

I take that word astonished to mean more than conventionally pleased or surprised. It wasn't simply that they had known this fellow Galilean for many years and never expected much of him. Rather, his countenance and his words and then his authoritative healing of the possessed man, opened a portal into an entirely unexpected reality: 
This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
Christians are people who live with one foot in this world and the other in a world so wonderfully strange that our neighbors can hardly imagine it. We see things they cannot see, and expect things they would never dream. Our senses are trained and disciplined by the Word he has spoken to us. Our imagination is colored by the stain glass windows in our churches; and our ears, tuned to the song of angels. We cannot regard people and events of this world with the usual lens of competition/enemies/survival. Rather, we see the world as God's creation and its people as cherished but distressed children of Our Father. Our mission is not to overcome them as enemies but to welcome them even when they fear and despise us.

In today's second reading, Saint Paul teaches us more about this "kingdom" in which we live.
I should like you to be free of anxieties.
This freedom, as he goes on to say, means we don't have to conform to the expectations of others, including their expectations about marriage, for instance. Whereas others were:
eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage up to the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.
we have the choice to follow the Spirit of God as we make our daily choices and lifelong commitments. 

We also have the freedom to hear the prophetic judgments of God concerning our moral behavior. We need not endorse the killing of incarcerated criminals or the invasion of defenseless nations. As a prophetic people we know the mind of God on such matters and may speak up to protest such mindless, counter-productive behaviors. We have seen that Saint Paul's admonition -- 
Bless those who persecute [you], bless and do not curse them.
Ice-covered rocks jut out
from hillsides at the Mount
-- leads more surely to peace with our enemies than any other way. 

This is the way the New Moses teaches us; he is the Prophet whom the Lord our God has raised up for us.

Memorial of Saint Thomas Aquinas, priest and doctor of the Church

How the mighty are  fallen.
They woke him and said to him,
"Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?"
He woke up,
rebuked the wind, 
and said to the sea, "Quiet! Be still!"

From the Book of  Psalms

Psalm 37.7:Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices. 
Psalm 39.2:I was silent and still; I held my peace to no avail; my distress grew worse,
Psalm 46.10:Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations,   I am exalted in the earth.’
The Teacher may have addressed his word to the wind and sea but it certainly fell upon the disciples as well: 
They were filled with great awe....
Or as we used to say in Kentucky, "Well shut my mouth and call me Silent." 

During the Sabbath rest of the weekend it is good to practice silence. Let my opinions cease their clamor for a while. Let me cease worrying and watch in wonder as the panorama of life flows before my eyes. 

That behavior might serve us well, too, as we hear today's story of David and the prophet Nathan. Surely some will object to an innocent child's fatal illness because of his father's reprehensible sin. Is God so malignant that he punishes the innocent for the sins of the wicked? 
Lord, let my judgment of your ways be still. Let me abide in your presence confident of your mercy for the unborn and the new born, for the innocent and the helpless. 
On Monday we will hear that Bathsheba's child died despite the anxious prayers of his parents. It was a hard lesson for David, one which he did not forget as the madman Shimei rained curses, dirt and rocks upon him. He wisely declared:
Let him alone and let him curse, for the LORD has told him to.
Perhaps the LORD will look upon my affliction
and make it up to me with benefits
for the curses he is uttering this day."

Friday of the Third Week in Ordinary Time

A familiar site
to hikers at MSF
(The kingdom of God) is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade."

I suppose that, as a young priest-friar, I often came to the dinner table or the evening conversation with a hangdog look of frustration and disappointment. I say this because I remember hearing often statements like, "You never know. You might have done more good than you suppose." 
Perhaps Jesus' disciples were feeling the same way when he gave them his parables of the sleeping farmer and the mustard seed. 

Blessed John Duns Scotus, one of the greatest of Franciscan philosopher/theologians encouraged his friars with a similar teaching: Whereas the works we human beings do on our own are often frustrating and fruitless, the works we do in obedience to God are touched with infinite blessings. They contribute irresistibly to building the Kingdom of God. If their specific effects don't appear to the searching eye, their roots run deep beneath appearances. 
And that is what we're all about, not satisfying our own needs or accomplishing our own agenda but contributing to Jesus' work of salvation. 
To live by faith is to believe that Jesus' sacrificial life and death cannot be frustrated. It is to let all of our efforts be subsumed into his grand work. Furthermore, to live by faith is to allow my identity, so dear to me, to be dismissed and my name to be forgotten in preference to the Holy Name of Jesus. 
Revelations give us one such image: 
And whenever the living creatures give glory and honour and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing,  ‘You are worthy, our Lord and God,   to receive glory and honour and power,for you created all things,   and by your will they existed and were created.’ (Revelations 4:9-11)
In the unlikely event I am given a crown for all my good works, I will certainly toss it on the massive pile before the Lamb of God, confident that he knows its worth. 

Memorial of Saint Timothy and Saint Titus, bishops

I actually took this picture! 
For there is nothing hidden except to be made visible;
nothing is secret except to come to light.

The advent of the Internet, digital cameras, video recorders and Facebook admirably demonstrates the truth of Jesus’ teaching. The distinction between public and private, which seemed cast in iron in the mid-twentieth century, has dissolved; even as the same people who display their soiled linens in social networks for friends and relatives decry this unexpected development.
Police, teachers, parents, ministers and anyone who works even remotely with the public must carefully choose their every word, deed and facial expression – thoughts are still exempt – because someone nearby may be recording their behaviors.
This glare of exposure, which seemed to begin in Richard Nixon’s Oval Office, has served us well in many ways. Crimes which once went undetected and unpunished are now exposed and addressed; self-righteous persons who cloaked their mischief in robes of authority are stripped in public. Priests, bishops, Boy Scout leaders and football coaches must submit to penetrating examinations to preserve their reputations. Parents, relatives and neighbors must demonstrate their virtue if they would associate with children.
For there is nothing hidden except to be made visible;
nothing is secret except to come to light.

Before this Revelation– this Apocalypse of private information -- a thoughtful Christian might wring her hands and cry, “Isn’t it awful?” and “That’s not how it used to be!” But she might also accept the challenge as an invitation to deeper integrity.

How comfortable am I with the shadow side of my nature? Am I willing to expose this secret side of my life to my spouse, a personal friend, a priest confessor, or a counselor? Are there things in my past that I choose to forget, rather than seek God’s pardon and atonement? Does the memory of past sins inspire me to greater gratitude for God’s saving mercy? Do those memories teach me greater compassion and patience with young people who have yet to experience the superabundant love of God in the impenetrable depths of their simple little souls?

The scriptures bear ample testimony to the revelations that will come on Judgment Day. No one should be so foolish as to think she will have no cause for shame. Rather, we plan to acclaim the Mercy of God who proves his Righteousness by the forgiveness of our sins.

Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, the Apostle

"I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia,
but brought up in this city.
At the feet of Gamaliel I was educated strictly in our ancestral law
and was zealous for God, just as all of you are today.

The story of Saint Paul's revelation and subsequent conversion teaches us much about the Christian way of life, and provides a cautionary tale about zeal. The Apostle described his former way of life not as sinful; that sinful story appears only in a later Pauline epistle which scholars suspect he did not write. Rather he recalled his strict education in the Law of Moses and his zeal for promoting that interpretation.
His encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus gave him an entirely new understanding of the Mosaic Law and redirected his zeal into unexpected new channels. 
The Church's long experience of zeal and the Holy Spirit teaches us wariness about zealotry. We are always glad to see someone turn away from a foolish, destructive way of life. We are delighted to share our joy and vision with those whom the Lord sends us. We are eager to be inspired by their energy and insight. 
And we also encourage them to allow us to test every spirit before they get carried away. Conversion is a process -- painstaking, arduous and demanding. Perhaps one of the hardest lessons is that deep suspicion of one's own impulses.
The "convert" -- that is one who has truly turned away from sin and wants to live by the Gospel -- will first have to square off against the habits of a lifetime which were, in fact, destructive and sinful. They will almost certainly include one or more of the "seven deadly sins:"  wrathgreedslothpridelustenvy, and gluttony. These habits abide in one's actions, speech and thoughts. They hide in one's memories, especially the resentments. Through the practice of penance, usually within a community of penance such as a 12 step group or a small prayer group, and with the assistance of mentors, spiritual directors and devout friends, the convert recognizes the roots of evil within the self. 
Saint Paul called that self "the old man." He was old not in the sense of aged but in sense of belonging to Adam and his fallen ways. 
Then, as one's thoughts, words and deeds are purified, the practice of obedience leads to humility. 
But expect relapses and discouragement along the way. The Old Man does not give up easily. 
And expect help and support from the Church of the redeemed. That community -- ever ancient and ever new -- may not be fun but it is joyful. 
And take to heart Saint Paul's encouraging words to his Thessalonian friends: 
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil. May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.  (I Thessalonians 5: 17-24)

Memorial of Saint Francis de Sales, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

And looking around at those seated in the circle he said,
"Here are my mother and my brothers.
For whoever does the will of God
is my brother and sister and mother."

Of all the Evangelists, Saint Mark draws the sharpest divide between Jesus and his family. At best, they play a minor role in all the gospels. 
But Mark's gospel accentuates the isolation of Jesus and his total surrender to the One who has only whispered to him. When Jesus was baptized, according to Mark, only he heard the reassuring word: 
And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
 That reassuring voice would not be heard again even in Gethsemane. In the beginning of the Gospel Jesus is like a roaring lion out of the wilderness, untamed and irresistible. Thousands flock to him for his teachings and healing while the Pharisees helplessly wring their hands. 
But in the end he will be abandoned by his nation, people, family and disciples. Neither the law nor his religion will sustain him; not even God will assist him as he cries to heaven: 
‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
 And yet "He is the king of glory." A suffering psychiatric patient recently reminded me of the horror of the cross. This devout Catholic Veteran is appalled at what he has seen in war. In its brutality he saw the suffering face of Jesus and he has not yet recovered from the trauma. It simply does not "fit" into what he had come to expect of life. 

In our prayer and practice of faith each of us must integrate agony and ecstasy to discover the glory of the cross. That's more easily said than done. 

Monday, Weekday in Ordinary Time

If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.
And if a house is divided against itself,
that house will not be able to stand.

The state flag of the Commonwealth of Kentucky has a picture of two men, a well-dressed statesman and a roughly dressed frontiersman, shaking hands. The inscription reads: "United we stand; Divided we fall." It reflects the direct, simple wisdom of Jesus Christ.
Abraham Lincoln reflected on this parable when he considered the plight of the United States in 1858. He saw what others were not willing to see; and he said what others dared not say. He gave that “House Divided” speech upon being nominated by his party to the U.S Senate; and, because of it, lost to Stephen Douglas. However, the speech made his fame and eventually propelled him into the presidency.

Jesus' words to his opponents sound like common sense, as if he were a teacher speaking to quarreling children. Their accusation of him is utter nonsense. "How can Satan drive out Satan?" he demands. But common sense, along with truth, is often the first casualty of war. Maddened with envy and fear, people lose touch with reality and say whatever inanities come to mind. 

This principle -- "a divided house cannot stand" -- should govern our actions night and day. In every quarrel we should remember "This conversation is not about who is right or wrong; it's about respect for my neighbor." 

A recent Catholic newspaper forecasts a resurgence of the pro-life movement and its likely impact on the elections in November. I am appalled by abortion, as is most everyone I know, but I cannot support a movement which has no realistic aims and threatens only to sabotage what should be a civil conversation. A constitutional amendment to ban abortion would be no more effective than our present laws against drug abuse, illegal weapons or illegal immigration. Into what already-overcrowded prison would we put all the women, men, parents of women, doctors, nurses, and international airlines who knowingly perform and abet illegal abortions? 

We can find ways to encourage responsible sexual behavior, parenting and moral behavior. We might find ways to build a culture that prefers moral character to consumption and wealth. But a legal shortcut to moral behavior is no more effective than a "war" on terror. 

I believe the abortion issue lies at the very heart of the red/blue line in American society. President Nixon and his advisers, who had no particularly strong feelings on the issue, decided to use abortion as an issue to separate Catholics from the Democratic party. They effectively drove pro-abortion people out of the GOP and drew anti-abortion people into it; and defined the issue as a fault-line in American society. Since then the two-party system has divided the United States into red and blue states, conservative and liberal politics, and "us versus them." (As in "We will take the country back.")

In the meanwhile, abortion has become an international epidemic. Only some Muslim nations still ban it. 

If we are ever to make headway against the plague we must reunite the house. We should find ways to make abortion unnecessary because we have fastened our ambitions to moral character rather than acquisition, and dedicated our zeal to holiness instead of freedom.

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out.
From now on, let those having wives act as not having them,
those weeping as not weeping,
those rejoicing as not rejoicing,
those buying as not owning, 
those using the world as not using it fully.
For the world in its present form is passing away. (I Cor 7)

Mandatory celibacy for priests has become a controversial issue in the last half century. Perhaps it always was; perhaps it is meant to be controversial. 
Its historical origins are shrouded by that same controversy. Is it a bad idea imposed on an unwilling cadre of priests by the authoritarian church? Or a personal calling heard in the depths of one's heart? Is it an appropriate response to the gospel, or a peculiarly inappropriate response? 
Celibacy certainly has roots in the New Testament, although it's virtually unknown in the Old. Saint Paul speaks of  his own commitment to Christ and the freedom his single state allows him when he wrote to the Corinthians
Indeed, I wish everyone to be as I am, but each has a particular gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. (I Cor 7:7)
In that very passage (verses 1-8) we find a significant clue to the history of celibacy. Some Greek Christians, given to stoicism by their philosophical traditions, supposed that Christian husbands and wives should live together as brothers and sisters, in celibacy. Saint Paul, with his deep understanding of human nature, was skeptical. He gave them permission to practice that way of life under three conditions: temporarily, by mutual consent, and for the sake of prayer -- but then return to one another, so that Satan may not tempt you through your lack of self-control.
6Couples do that today when one goes on retreat for a few days. It's really nothing unusual. Indeed, absence and abstinence make the heart grow fonder
Some married couples who are experiencing severe strains in their marriage may also find his advice helpful. Perhaps their sexual relationship has been less than satisfying for one or both of them; and they need time to reconsider everything about their mutual covenant. They seek counsel, spiritual direction, growth and maturity, freedom from compulsions and obsessions. Perhaps one or both must find sobriety, sanity and serenity through a twelve step program. The fear of sexual abstinence is itself a symptom of a diseased relationship. Wealthier couples might take time to live apart from one another, in separate homes, until they have rediscovered their freedom to love and be loved. In isolation each must seek that purity which God gives to his people, (without interference from a third party!)

But further reading of Saint Paul's teaching points to a deeper meaning of celibacy, especially as millions of men and women have practiced the Gospel throughout its history:
Life-long celibacy is founded on the principle that no relationship in this world can match the satisfaction that God has promised to his faithful people. The celibate person, who usually lives within a community of celibate persons, is a quasi-sacramental sign that the best is yet to come

A recent book making the rounds in the Catholic Church, asks Why Are Priests Happy? I spoke with my spiritual director the other day and we agreed that we are extraordinarily fortunate. After making the initial commitment to this way of life -- which is indeed challenging! -- we find our lives are so much simpler than that of married men and women. Although we can't enjoy the pleasure of grandchildren sitting in our laps and whispering in our ears, we often find ourselves surrounded by flocks of other people's grandchildren, eager to hear stories of Jesus and Mary. Their innocence and eagerness and beauty are balms to the aches of old age. Their piety is reward enough for the sacrifices we have made and nearly forgotten. Indeed we have inherited a hundred fold (Mark 10:31). 

The Carmelite abbess, Mother Tessa Bilecki has written, 
"Celibacy makes no sense at all unless it issues from love. Sex makes no sense at all unless it issues from love. Both sex and celibacy are about love, and I have learned how to be a better lover, a universal lover, as a result of celibacy. I have learned to count on God totally, unequivocally and unconditionally as a result of celibacy. Whereas if I were not celibate, there would be the temptation to rely on someone less than God for ultimate fulfillment.
"I would not trade celibacy for anything. It's really the heart of my life. I believe that there is a qualitative difference in my relationship with God as a result of being celibate because I have to count on him alone. When my spiritual director suggested to me that I might be called to celibacy, I literally screamed and ran away. I was absolutely horrified. It was the last thing in the world I wanted.
"And now I'd be horrified if somebody said, 'Now you have to get married.' I couldn't bear it, because of the joy that I know from living a life of celibacy." 
She has also written, though I could not Google the quotation, that married love is red-hot and celibate love is white-hot.

Celibacy is not for everyone. Saint Paul knew that very well and understood that every Christian must respond to God's call in her own and his own particular way. But it remains an enormous gift to the Church. It will abide within the Catholic tradition until the end of time, and will remain as an offer to all Christians, Catholic and Protestant. 

Memorial of Saint Agnes, Virgin and Martyr

Sunset on the lake at MSF
I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother!
most dear have you been to me;
more precious have I held love for you than love for women.

During those few "peaceful" years between the Vietnam and Gulf Wars vague suggestions floated about that David and Jonathan were more than "just friends." Perhaps there was a homosexual component to their relationship. Didn't David say, "more precious have I held love for you than love for women?"

I find it sad that people would so willfully misread a man's expressions of grief. King David was a ferocious man, given to intense love and hate. His grief for his son Absalom is one of the most affecting passages in the scriptures. People say things in sadness, as they express intense emotion, that may not be taken literally.
At the graveside of her brother a woman once whispered to me, "I'm all alone. There is no one to care for me." In fact she had children and grandchildren and a large caring family. But a fellow who happened to be standing by and overheard her words thought she was insulting her family. He seemed not to know the language of grief. 

Secondly, David's anguished words describe the bond of warriors who fight side by side against a common enemy.  Perhaps we understand that better today, as hear our Veterans speak of  "the band of brothers" and "I've got your back." Men who have been forged into a fighting unit by their basic training and battlefield experience, who have patrolled hostile territory, survived innumerable skirmishes and faced death repeatedly must feel a palpable affection for one another that no woman would dare to challenge. I cannot doubt that David's love for Jonathan was more precious than sexual love. His words need no further interpretation from a contemporary notion about sexuality. 

Our Christian tradition also recognizes in David a prototype of Jesus. His affection for Jonathan depicts Jesus' intense affection for each one of us, for whom he has fought and died. This is more than a spiritual feeling; this is an intense, earthy emotion that groans in pain. 

We see that more clearly in John 11, as Jesus approached the grave of his friend Lazarus. He did not pause to think, "I've got everything under control. I'll fix this up with my divine power to raise the dead. Then they'll know that I am God." Rather, he was staggered by the horror of death and groaned aloud. 
...he became perturbed and deeply troubled.... 
So Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb 

As John tells the story, there were mixed feelings around him. Some were moved by the spectacle of Jesus' grief. "See how he loved him." they said. Others were more skeptical. “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?”

But Jesus was not thinking about himself. Attuned to the Holy Spirit that guided his impulses, he offered his own life in exchange for Lazarus. Saint John shows this by the sequence of events that immediately followed: Jesus called his friend from the grave, and a group of bystanders raced in Jerusalem, 
"But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done." 
He had signed his own death warrant. 

Hearing of David's grief for his former king Saul and his friend Jonathan -- perhaps I should say overhearing because this is such an intense drama -- we understand all the more clearly the sacrifice that Jesus offers for each one of us. 
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Friday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

Dusk on the water
He appointed Twelve, whom he also named Apostles, that they might be with him....

I am sure I heard a teacher in high school, university or theology remind me that we are all “vessels of clay.” Certainly, I have heard that gentle word in many sermons. So why does it always seem like a new insight to me?
The fellows Jesus chose for apostles were certified vessels of clay, right down to the scoundrel Judas. Some of them he nicknamed Sons of Thunder. He was probably teasing them for their loud voices and louder opinions. Other apostles, like Peter, are remembered fondly for their shortcomings. In his gospel, Saint Mark summarized his estimation of the group with his terse remark, “They all deserted him and fled.” (14:50). Has a worse censure ever been pronounced? 

But St Mark reminds us the apostles were appointed “that they might be with him,” (which is just the opposite of deserting and fleeing). Being with Jesus is the vocation of every Christian. Before we do anything, speak or think anything, we should abide with Jesus.

Martin Luther, echoing Saint Paul and much of the Christian tradition, insisted that we are saved by faith alone. But the word faith often implies doctrines, beliefs and opinions. After five hundred years of division over Martin Luther's teaching, I would suggest another word: fidelity. By that I mean persistent, courageous cleaving to the person of Jesus. We take shelter in the shadow of his wings; we hide in the safety of his Heart. 
Fidelity is not holding an opinion; no one is saved by his opinions. Rather, because we are vessels of clay, we cling to Jesus as our friend and champion.

I love you, LORD, my strength,
LORD, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer,
My God, my rock of refuge,
my shield, my saving horn, my stronghold!
Praised be the LORD, I exclaim!
I have been delivered from my enemies. Psalm 18

Thursday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

Saul was very angry and resentful of the song, for he thought:
"They give David ten thousands, but only thousands to me.
All that remains for him is the kingship."
And from that day on, Saul was jealous of David.

As the former director at our retreat house in Minnesota, I know the strange effect of authority. It embeds deep within one's identity, wrapping itself around neurons and axons to be integrated into one's nervous system.  Because it is so deeply embedded, it is hard to let go even when you’re sick and tired of it.

Saul was not sick and tired of it. He was an able warrior and a capable leader, enjoying the respect of his soldiers. If he was little more than a warlord in a lawless land, he nonetheless preferred fighting to farming. He had the popular support of the Hebrews and the religious authority of the Judge Samuel to back him up. Or so he thought. His popularity was eroding as David's grew stronger; and Samuel was never enthusiastic about surrendering some of his religious authority to a secular king in the first place. He had anointed Saul as king only under divine obedience. But when Saul violated certain religious taboos Samuel quietly transferred his support to David.
As Saul felt his privilege slipping away he fell into the madness of envy. Perhaps David recalled that insanity many years later when he composed Psalm 51: Do not drive me from before your face, nor take from me your holy spirit.

Saint Francis also felt the intoxicating effects of authority. He had not set out to found an Order, but young men and women found him. They flocked to him by hundreds and thousands. Reassured by Church authorities that he should promote this movement, Francis labored intensely to show them his vision. His first dozen followers seemed to "get it" and he was very happy with them. That early group, including Saint Clare of Assisi, practiced poverty, penance and obedience and discovered the freedom of owning nothing and relying completely on God. Had they all been spurned by the people around them and starved for lack of popular support, Francis would have been very happy to die with them.
But the Church's needs were greater than his initial vision could include. The Church needed well-educated, well-trained preachers to move throughout Christendom; they had to reintroduce Jesus Christ to a religion that celebrated itself without reference to its Lord. Student friars needed food, shelter and warmth to maintain their studies. They could not live in the streets and sleep in barns like the first friars, and still attend classes by day. They needed books and they would develop erudition.
Francis resisted that impulse mightily until he was finally set aside by the friars and allowed to go his way. He could not and would not leave the community, of course, but his leadership would be only by writing and speaking. He would inspire rather than direct.
It was no easy transition for him. Some biographers think he suffered the disappointment for about two years, until he was given the stigmata. That "imprimatur" reminded him that God was still in charge and would direct the community despite his helplessness. The stigmata became a kind of living death for Francis, even as the wounds of Jesus appeared only after his death. There was no further possibility of his directing anything or anyone. He had become little more than an undead relic for the church.

He told the parable of the corpse. If you take a corpse out of its coffin, set it on a throne, put a crown on its head and a scepter in its hand, it will be no happier than it was in the coffin. That's the attitude leaders should bring to their ministry. They act in obedience only, despising any "perks" that might accompany the job. Relieved of responsibility they shed no tears; in fact they are downright grateful for the freedom of being under obedience again. Hopefully, in the meanwhile, they might have learned -- if they did not know -- the true practice of obedience.

Tragically, Saul never attained that freedom. He would die on the battle field, far from his vassal David, who might have saved his life. 

Wednesday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

An angel by MSF Lake
Jesus said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out and his hand was restored.

Ordinarily, in the scriptures, stretching out one’s hand is a warrior’s gesture. The hand wields a sword, club or stone to smash the enemy.  Here are several verses from the Book of Exodus, for examples:

  • So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all my wonders that I will perform in it; after that he will let you go. 3: 20
  • I am the Lord, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment.  6:6
  • The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out from among them.’  7:5
  • The Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand towards heaven so that hail may fall on the whole land of Egypt, on humans and animals and all the plants of the field in the land of Egypt.’ 9.22

Today’s gospel begins with a man who suffers a withered hand. He seems defenseless against his enemies, vulnerable before anyone who might take advantage of him. His only defenses are the Lord and his willingness to obey the Lord’s command.
So when Jesus orders him to “Stretch out your hand” he does so willingly. And with the gesture he and Jesus strike down their enemies.
But it is a healing gesture too. His hand would not be healed if he did not obey the Lord. Saint Luke emphasizes that with his repetition of the word stretch in two consecutive sentences.
Perhaps he did not even see the conspiracy against Jesus. Aware of Jesus’ authority he might not have sensed the growing tension in the room. But by stretching out his hand this obedient disciple shattered the pious pretensions of the wicked and unleashed their diabolical rage. Out of control, they set to work – on the Sabbath – to destroy the Lord.

Memorial of Saint Anthony, Abbott

What is over the horizon?
Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart.

Living in a time of tremendous change, we are confronted rather often with the unexpected and the unforeseen. In retrospect we might suppose we should have seen it coming – the burst of the housing bubble, Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme, or the nine-eleven attack on the United States, for instance; and some people will declare they did see it coming and they did sound the alarm but no one was listening. But the future, especially in our time, is largely unforeseeable.
Short of predicting the sun will rise tomorrow morning, it’s hard to know what might happen. But even movements of the sun, if the Portuguese at Fatima are to be believed, isn’t always predictable.  
Today’s Bible readings remind us of that unpredictability in troubled times. When Samuel went to Bethlehem to anoint another king no one suspected what he was up to. For that matter he didn’t know what would happen. But Samuel did as the Lord had commanded him”; he anointed the least of Jesse’s sons, a shepherd-boy named David.
Once again God would demonstrate that he can do the unexpected with unpromising material. Saint Paul was well aware of God’s amazing capability when he said:
For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. (I Cor 15:9)
He also reminded the Corinthians of how unlikely they were as God's servants:
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 
In fact we find in the scriptures a pronounced tradition of choosing the lesser and the least: Abel over Cain, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over his brothers, and the Hebrews over the Egyptians.

God reserves the right to surprise and the wisest are those who look to the future with great hope and no particular expectation.