Thursday, May 11, 2017

If you Love Me, Keep My Commandments

 We all know Jesus basic commandment--Love one another as I have loved you. (See John 15:12).  That sounds wonderful but when we reflect more deeply on those words we realize that they are very challenging words because He loved us by laying down His life for us.  Christian love then is not about holding hands and singing kumbaya, not that there is anything wrong with that, it is about sacrificing for one another, giving generously in every way to one another.  Our love can take many forms--love of spouse, of parents, of children, of brothers and sisters, of friends. For myself it is the love between myself and the other friars, the love I give and receive with God's people. However, no matter what form love takes it seems to me that it evokes 2 things from those who are loved--to spend time together and to strive, to sacrifice to please the one who loves me.

   Knowing that the Lord loves us calls us to these two things--to spend time with Him and to do the things that please Him.   As for the first, spending time with Him, that is our life of prayer and I will tackle that soon in another blog post.  For now I would like to concentrate on the second part--doing the things that please Him.  And what pleases Him?  He tells us directly. "If you love me, keep my commandments." (John 14:15)

    A quick response to this invitation would be to go to the ten commandments.  Aren't those Jesus' commandments?   Certainly the Lord wants us to follow those, but He gives us a few others.  The 10 commandments tell us what not to do--commit idolatry, steal, lie, cheat, kill, commit adultery.  Fine, of course we ought not do those things.   But what about "love your enemies, and pray for your persecutors"? Or, "Forgive seventy times seven times"?  And then there is Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the imprisoned (all implies in Matthew 25) Finally there are the beatitudes which while not exactly commandments tell us that we are blessed when we are poor in spirit, pure of heart or peacemakers. Then there is the most challenging of all--to take up the cross every day and follow Him (also a subject to be explored soon).

   I think you get the idea.  Without living out these challenging demands of the Gospel we reduce Christianity to a moral code.  We focus only on personal sin, especially sexual sin, and fail to truly live the Gospel.  Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that basic morality is not important.  What I am saying is that real Christian discipleship is so much more.

   Do you love Him?  Do you keep HIS commandments?


Sunday, April 16, 2017

He is Risen. The victory is won!

  It is a beautiful Easter morning here in St. Petersburg.  I have spent a wonderful Holy Week here at our friary and am looking forward to our Easter morning Mass in a bit over an hour from now.

   He is Risen!  that is the Good News of Easter.  Think of that. It is in the present tense.  Our faith is not only that He rose from the dead, but that He is risen and lives now, not only in heaven, but here among us.  How?  For starters in the Eucharist.  Unfortunately a lot of people stop there.  The Eucharist is indeed the most concrete, visible and tangible was that He is alive among us, but not the only way.  In Matthew's Gospel Jesus tells us "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them. (Mt. 18:20)  Think of that. Not only in church, but when we pray at home or anywhere else He is with us.  Then, of course, is Matthew 25 "I was hungry and you fed me, naked and you clothed me, etc." There is likewise a real presence of the Lord among us in the Word.  When we read the Scriptures either as a community or privately the One Who is the Living Word comes to dwell in our hearts.  Life, then, is indeed alive with the presence of the Risen Christ.

   Our problem, very often, is that we are not aware of this.  Our spiritual vision needs to improve.  It is so easy to get weighed down by all the horrible things going on in the world.  How do we keep the awareness of His presence alive? I return again to the Eucharist.  Sometimes we stress the presence of Jesus there so strongly that we act as if that is the only way in which we encounter the Risen One.  The Eucharistic presence is not the only way.   In the Eucharist we can connect the dots to these other, perhaps more subtle forms of His presence among us.  In Luke's Gospel we have one of my favorite Resurrection accounts, that of Jesus on the road to Emmaus. (Lk. 24:13-35).  Two distraught disciples are in Jesus' presence but they don't  recognize Him.  In the breaking of the bread (Eucharist) they not only see him, but they realize that He is the One who was with them earlier in their brokenness.  For us it is in the Eucharist that our eyes are opened, not only to see Him while at Mass, but to realize how wonderfully present He is throughout our lives.

   One last, but important, thought.   At Easter we proclaim that Christ has won a victory over sin and death.  It is certainly easy to look at the condition of the world today and say, "What victory?  Are you kidding me?"  I just finished reading a book by one of my favorite contemporary spiritual writers, Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, OMI. The book's title is The Passion and the Cross.  In one section of the book he explains something important in talking about the meaning of Redemption,  He explains that Jesus is not a rescuer.  He doesn't bail us out but rather allows us to go through pain and suffering only to discover something unimaginably wonderful on the other side.  On the cross the Father does not rescue Him. He is allowed to die.  That's what the two disciples mentioned above failed to see.  Incredibly He rose from the dead.

   As we confront suffering, sickness and death in our own lives and in the lives of our brothers and sisters around the world our faith teaches us that there will be redemption, that we will not usually be spared or rescued, but rather that we will be strengthened to go through these things not in some stoic grin and bear it mentality, but in true Christian Hope that something new awaits us on the other side, not only in the next life, but even now. 

   Christ is Risen! He is truly Risen!  Alleluia!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Would You Let Him Wash Your Feet?

  Several years ago a wonderful friend gave me the gift of a figurine depicting Jesus washing the feet of Peter.  It is on the top of my bookshelf along with some of my other religious objects.  I often look across my room and meditate on the meaning of this action performed by Jesus at the Last Supper  This is especially true during Holy Week.

   There is one moment in the telling of this story that often gets overlooked.  As Jesus approaches him, ready to wash his feet, Peter refuses.  Jesus responds by telling him, "Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me." (John 13,8)  Jesus, of course, does was his feet.

   What are we to learn from Peter's refusal?  There are lessons on several levels.

   We live in a society that overvalues self-sufficiency.  We tend to feel weak if we let someone help us.  While this applies to all of us it is especially true of men.  We need to be able to do it all, or so we think.  What we fail to appreciate is the difference between taking and receiving.  Taking from others is to assume power and control over them.  It leads to an attitude of entitlement.  Receiving is to take a position of humility.  It is to acknowledge and be grateful for a gift that is being offered.  Peter is initially practicing false humility.  He doesn't want to allow his Teacher and Master to perform such a menial task.  Jesus is offering a gift, a gift of love, which Peter receives.

   On a deeper level we need to understand the gift that is being offered.   Washing feel is a task that even slaves could refuse to do under Roman law.  When we re-enact the washing of feet in our parishes I am sure that all of the volunteers make sure that their feet are clean.  In Jesus' time people walked barefoot or in sandals.  Few people had boots and shoes.  With sharing the roadways with animals, and most roadways being made of dirt, you can imagine what a chore it wast o wash feet.

   This gesture by Jesus is what Pope Benedict XVI, in volume II of his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy calls a Sacramentum of Jesus' Passion and Death.  By this he does not mean that washing of the feet is an eight sacrament, but rather that it is a ritual playing out of what would happen to Jesus the next day.  In His Passion and Death Jesus is pouring out His love for all humanity.  He is stooping down to an entering the darkness and filth that is our sin and our suffering in order that all of that might be forgiven and healed.  That is what the dirt and filth on the muddied feet of the apostles represents.

    For us the challenge is to allow ourselves to receive this gift of total love from Jesus.  It is to admit at the same time that there is darkness within us and that we need this precious gift.

   Are we willing to let Him wash our feet?  At the end Jesus reminds us that we must do as He did. We cannot do that well if we are not first willing to receive from Him.


Monday, March 20, 2017

From Sinner and Outsider to Missionary--Accompanied by Jesus

  Pope Francis often urges us priests to accompany people who are in sinful or strained relationships with the Church.  This frightens a lot of tradition minded folks because it sounds like just giving in and going along with whatever anyone is doing.

   Nothing could be farther from the truth.

   In the Gospel reading for the third Sunday in Lent this year (March 19) we find the beautiful story of Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:5-32).  In this story Jesus offers Himself as a beautiful example of what it means to "accompany".

   Jesus takes the initiative.  He breaks social taboo to speak with her and ask her for a drink of water.  This was forbidden on several levels.  First of all Jews did not speak with Samaritans.  Secondly she was a woman.  Men and women to whom they were not married had to keep a respectful distance in public. Jesus, however, breaks both of these taboos.  Also, in asking her for a drink of water He is showing a willingness to receive from her before He offers her the great gift that He has to bring.  He doesn't lead this meeting with confrontation and judgement, but with compassion and  desire to listen. Only after establishing a connection with her does He tell her "to go and get her husband".  When  He finally tells her that she has five husbands she responds with amazement.  She tells her Samaritan friends, "He told me everything I ever did."

   I often wonder why she didn't tell Him to back off and mind His own business.  I think that there are two reasons why her reaction was differen:

   1.  She was thirsting.  She was in pain and looking for a way out of her difficult life.

   2.  More importantly Jesus spoke and gazed upon her with such love that she was able to hear and take to heart His challenging words.   Thus, she was set free and became a "missionary", carrying the Good News to her friends and neighbors.

    When we accompany people we are not condoning their bad behavior but rather meeting them where they are at, listening to them, compassionately responding to their pain and then leading them to the truth.  Leading with statements of rules, etc often drives people away.

    As for ourselves, for what do we thirst?  Are we open to the compassionate and yet challenging voice of Jesus?


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Ashes for Elders--An Ash Wednesday Reflection

    I live in a friary intended mainly for elder and retired friars.  I am not retired myself and I am one of the young guys in my community, but I am certainly closer to the end of my life than to the beginning.  I found myself asking the question, "So what does Lent mean after all these years.  How can people who are getting along in years observe this special season?"  Needless to say, like everyone else, we are supposed to turn to prayer, almsgiving and fasting. I would like to suggest thought that there is a particular framework that might be helpful for those of us who have lived through sixty, seventy, eighty or more Lenten seasons.

   The traditional formula for the imposition of ashes is the one in the upper left hand corner at the beginning of this article.  I recent years we have also been able to use the words "Repent, and believe in the Gospel."  Both formulas are fine and in my younger years I preferred the newer one.  Recently, however, I have reverted to the older one.  Why?  There is the awareness that I, as well as other folks of my generation, are inching closer to "returning to dust."  I believe that this awareness should shape our Lenten practice.

   Some might think this too gloomy and depressing a thought.  Remember, as we move towards death we are preparing to give ourselves into the hands of a loving and merciful God. We should approach this reality with hope, rather than with dread.

   Besides meeting the obvious challenge of overcoming what is sinful inn our lives, I think that Lent is a good time at our age to let go of excess baggage.  Perhaps things that served us well years ago, be they material things or ideas, attitudes and dispositions. need to be cast aside.  We can be trapped into a "we've always done it this way" mentality.  Maybe with the diminish of our bodies, with less energy, we have to learn to do many things differently, including prayer.

   It's amazing how many of us carry anger and resentment towards people and situations that are long past. During Lent we can ask the Lord to set us free from these things as well as negative attitudes and cynicism.

   Whatever our age Lent is not just about giving up things.  It can be a time of new freedom, of doing things that we always wanted to do but did not have time for.  As I go around preaching I am always impressed by the number of seniors who attend daily Mass and who give more time to prayer.  Others with the energy to do so give more time over to service of others.  Maybe one might be inspired to develop talents that you just didn't have time for at an earlier age.  Naturally as we embrace this new freedom the decisions we make can take us well beyond Lent.

   It is difficult to face the reality of decline.  Denial can be a big problem as we grow older.  We like to stay in control and be able to do the things we always did.  It is hard to admit that "I am getting older and can't see, hear and move about like I used to.  Lent can be a time of asking the Lord to help us accept that.  If we do that we will be doing a great service to those who care for us.

   One final Lenten practice could be growing in the ability to graciously receive help.  As Americans and as Christians we were trained to give.  That is good.  We don't want to be takers or fall into a habit of entitlement,  Receiving is not entitlement.  It is humbly receiving as gift what others are willing to do for us. It is admitting that we at time need help rather than stubbornly insisting that we can still do things that we are no longer capable of. I am moved by the fact that many of the men where I live need help getting around, and so graciously receive the offer to assist them. I know that when I have to give up my car keys to the superior for my sake and the sake of others on the road, that will be a challenging moment.

Remember, you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.  That's OK. That's good news.


Sunday, February 19, 2017

A Challenge for Christians

Before entering into the current article I would like to point out an error, a typo, in my last blog entry. it has been corrected. The first line should say 2007, not 2017.  Some of you thought that I was currently suffering from cancer. Thankfully that is 10 years in  the past. 

G.K. Chesterton in his book What's Wrong with the World? made the statement, "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and not tried."

I thought of these words when I reflected on today's Gospel passage from Matthew 5:38-48.  This is the section where we are told things like "turn the other cheek", and "love your enemies and pray for your persecutors."  When is the last time that you or I tried out those practices?  In so many ways Chesterton was right.  Yes, there have been shining examples to the contrary.  I think of St. Francis of Assisi, among others, who truly lived the Gospel, but the great majority of us have a long way to go.

   Today's Gospel text is part of the Sermon on the Mount which is given in the entire fifth chapter of Matthew.  It begins with the beatitudes and continues on with an invitation to a radically different way of living.  Today's verses are not instructing us, by the way, to let people walk all over us.  When properly understood they are an invitation to non-violent opposition to evil.  They are ways of shaming an opponent.  There is an marshal art called aikido. As Bishop Robert Barron explains in his meditation on today's Gospel, "The idea of aikido is to absorb the aggressive energy of your opponent, moving with it, continually frustrating him until he comes to the point of realizing that fighting is useless."  A good example of this is in Jesus exhortation to walk two miles if someone asks you to walk one with him (or her).  In Roman law one was required, under certain circumstances to accompany someone for one mile, perhaps to help carry a heavy load.  By going beyond that the other person would start to think, "What's this guy up to?", and get frustrated.

   Perhaps something we can all practice right away is the invitation to "love our enemies and pray for our persecutors."  These days I see on social media so much hatred from both the left and right side of the political and ecclesiastical spectrum.  To love our enemies, both personal ones and members of other religions, nations and groups, does not been to agree with them or to put up with evil attacks on us. It does mean that we understand that every human being is worthy of dignity and respect.  In praying for them we may not pray that their attacks succeed, but perhaps pray for the healing of the violence and anger that is in them.

    Lent is coming soon (March 1). Maybe for Lent we can pray for our enemies, big and small. Just maybe that will herald a deeper transformation in us.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

A 10 Year Old Gift--A Confession and a Thanksgiving

  On January 18, 2007 I was treated with  radioactive seed implants for prostate cancer.  Prior to that I had had 5 weeks of beam radiation as well as several medications as part of that treatment.  I am not unique in having successfully undergone such treatments.  They were not particularly harsh and I know others who have received much more difficult treatments for different cancers.  That having been said this article is not about comparing the harshness of my treatments with those of others, it is rather about saying that I am grateful to God and to many people for being alive today.

   In subtle, but profound ways my life changed when I received the call telling me that I had cancer. That news lead me to several life-changing awarenesses.

   First of all it made me face my own mortality.  The fact that I, as well as every human being, is going to die some day, is not news.  It is, however, a fact, a truth, that we run away from.  Yes, even those of us who believe in the next life, in sin, forgiveness, redemption and all the rest of the good news of the Gospel, tend to hide from this truth.  We don't deny it. We just don't pay a lot of attention to it.

   Sometimes people are faced with this reality at a young age and in a blunt and forceful way.  There are accidents, grave illnesses and tragedies.  Military people and first responders are asked to write out a will, confronting them with the truth of the risk they are taking out of love for our country.

   In my case the news that I had cancer was not a blunt, harsh confrontation with the possibility of death.  I knew that the success rate of prostate cancer treatment was high.  Nonetheless I was faced with the fact that something was growing in me that would kill me if I did not do something about it.
What a blessing. What freeing news.

   Freeing news, a blessing?  Yes, because it forced me to evaluate my life and decide what was really important.  Too much of my time was caught up in the trivial.  More importantly I was carrying way too much anger and resentment.  Yes, on the surface I was gentle and serene, but underneath there was a pot load of anger that I had carried for years. Realizing the shortness of life helped me to just let go of resentments that I could do nothing about.   Much of this anger was tied to loyalties to ideologies and led me to anger towards those who didn't see things my way.  I still have my opinions and preferences, but have them more in perspective.  I really think that one of our main problems today is not "those liberals"' "those conservatives", etc.  It is the anger that we carry towards one another.

  A more important part of the blessing has been the deepening of my prayer life, a movement towards a more contemplative style of prayer, a realization that prayer is ultimately about union with God and not an effort to get God to do things.

    Gratitude is another product of this blessing.  I am so grateful for the Doctors who treated me and for all of the nurses and technicians who were part of that process.  I also came to see how loved and supported I was by so many people who sent prayers and support my way.

   Finally this blessing has given focus to my life as a friar and to my ministry of preaching.  Living religious, fraternal life as a friar is not always easy, but I am so blessed to be part of a community of brothers that cares for me and that challenges me to care for them as I move into the latter years of my life.  My ministry, above all, amounts to letting people know that God loves them, and reaching out to the most vulnerable of people who need to be reassured of that.

   An old song has the line, "What a Wonderful Life".  I have been blessed with a wonderful life and hope to make the most of the years that I have left.