Recipe for Readiness —A Homily for the 19th Sunday of the Year

In the Gospel for this weekend (Luke 12:32-40) the Lord Jesus presents a “recipe for readiness.” He gives it to us so that we can lay hold of His offer that we not be afraid. He is not simply saying, “Be not afraid.” He is explaining how we can battle fear by being ready.

Christians today are often uncertain about what is necessary in order to be ready to meet God. Many also make light of the Day of Judgment, considering it all but certain that most of humanity will be saved.

Jesus does not adopt this position. In fact, He teaches the opposite. He consistently warns of the need to be ready for our judgment. Jesus does not counsel a foolish fearlessness rooted in the deception that all or even most will be saved. Rather, He counsels a fearlessness based on solid preparation for the Day of Judgment. Jesus tells us to do at least five things in order to be ready and therefore not afraid.

If we do not make these sorts of preparations, Jesus warns that He will come when we least expect and take away all that we (wrongly) call our own. Jesus says, But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap (Lk 21:34). The apostolic tradition says this of the unprepared: disaster will fall on them as suddenly as a pregnant woman’s labor pains begin. And there will be no escape (1 Thess 5:3).

Thus, while Jesus begins by saying that we ought not to fear (for the Father wants to grant us His Kingdom), He also warns that being free of fear is contingent upon embracing and following the plan that He sets forth for our life.

Let’s look at this plan and see how we can forsake fear by becoming and remaining ready. Jesus gives us five specific things to do that will help to ready us for the time when the Lord calls us. It is not an exhaustive list, for no single passage of Scripture is the whole of Scripture, but these are some very practical and specific things to reflect upon and do.

I.  Reassess your wealth. Jesus says, Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your belongings and give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.

In this passage, the Lord is giving us three teachings on wealth. He says that we ought to do these things:

        • Forgo Fear. In the end, it is fear that makes us greedy and worldly; we grab up the things of this world because we are afraid of not having enough for tomorrow. But what if we could receive the gift to trust God more and to know that He will give us our daily bread? He has given us the Kingdom; why wouldn’t He give us everything else? He may not give us everything we want, but He will give us what we really need. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these other things will be given unto to you (Matt 6:21). If we can just allow God to diminish our fear, we will be surprised at how easy it is to be generous with what we have rather than hoarding it.
        • Forward your Fortune. When we are generous to the needy and poor, we store up treasure for ourselves in Heaven. Treasure is not stored in Heaven by sending it up there in a rocket ship or a hot-air balloon. It is accomplished by generously distributing our wealth to others in wise and creative ways. I discussed this more fully in my homily last week (You Can’t Take It with You, but You Can Send It on Ahead). While it may not be appropriate to sell everything and go sleep on a park bench, the Lord is surely telling us to be less attached to and passionate about money and possessions, for they root us in this world. And where our treasure is, there also will our heart be.
        • Fix your focus. Our focus is misplaced because most of us have our treasure here in this world. Once we become less fearful and more generous, our obsession with worldly treasure subsides and our joy in heavenly treasure grows. This redirects our focus and puts our heart where our treasure really is and ought to be: in Heaven with God. Simplify! Be less rooted in this world; come to experience that your greatest treasure is God and the things awaiting you in Heaven.

Reassess your wealth. What is it and where is it? That will tell you a lot about your heart.

II. Ready yourself to work. The Lord says Gird your loins,which is the ancient equivalent of “roll up your sleeves.” The Lord has work for us to do and wants us to get to it.

Surely, the Lord has more than a worldly career in mind. He has in mind things like growing in holiness, pursuing justice, and raising children in godly fear. The Lord wants us to work in His Kingdom. We must commit to prayer, Sunday worship, the reception of the sacraments, obedience, and holiness.

The Lord has particular work for each of us based on our gifts. Some people are good teachers; others work well with senior citizens; some are entrepreneurs who can provide employment for others at a just wage. Some are skilled at medicine and the care of the sick; others are called to priesthood or the religious life. Some are called to suffer and to offer that suffering for the salvation of souls. Some serve in strength, others do so in weakness; but all are called to serve, to work.

Work with what the Lord gave you to advance His Kingdom. Part of being ready means doing your work.

III. Read the Word. The Lord says, light your lamps.

On one level, the phrase “light your lamps” is simply a symbol for readiness (e.g., the Wise and Foolish Virgins in Matt. 25:1-13).

But in another sense, a lamp is also a symbol for Scripture. For example, You Word, O Lord, is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path (Ps 119:105). We possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts (2 Peter 1:19).

The Lord is teaching us that an essential part of being ready is being rooted and immersed in the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church. That makes sense, of course. Too many in this increasingly secular world are hostile to the faith. How can we think that our mind is going to be anything but sullied if we are not reading Scripture every day? How will our minds be sober and clear if we are inebriated by the world?

Clearly, being ready means reading Scripture each day and basing our life on it.

IV. Remain watchful. The Lord says, And be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks. … Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour when the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.

There are different ways to watch and wait. There is the passive watching and waiting that we might do when waiting for a bus: we just sit there and look down the street. There is another kind that is more active. Consider a waiter: he waits and watches actively; he observes and delivers what is needed immediately and notes what will be needed soon so that he will be prepared when the time comes.

There is also the eager sort of waiting that is much like that of a child on Christmas Eve. The child does not wait in dread for Santa Claus but in hopeful expectation.

Watchful and eager waiting are what the Lord has in mind. It is like that active waiting we do when we have invited a guest to our home. We joyfully prepare and place all in order.

To set our house in order is to sweep clean our soul of sin and all unrighteousness (by God’s grace) and to remove all the clutter of worldliness from our life. Regular confession, daily repentance, simplifying our life,  and freeing ourself from worldly attachments declutters the house of our soul.

Have you prepared the home of your soul for the Lord’s arrival? If not, you may experience Him as you would a thief. The Lord is not really a thief, for everything belongs to Him, but if we have not renounced our worldliness and greed and have not rid ourself of attachments to this world, then the Lord will come and take back what is His. He will seem like a thief only because we (wrongly) think things belong to us.

It’s never a good idea to call God, the Lord and owner of all, a thief!

V. Reflect on your reward. The Lord says, Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival. Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them. And should he come in the second or third watch and find them prepared in this way, blessed are those servants.

The Lord is clear that He has a reward for those who are found ready!

It is prefigured in the banquet of the Eucharist, in which the Lord prepares a meal and feeds us. He says, Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me (Rev 3:20). And I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father has conferred one on me, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom (Luke 22:30). Today, food can be bought on the spur of the moment and eaten immediately, but in the ancient world one of life’s most pleasant things was a leisurely meal enjoyed in the company of good friends and family.

The Lord offers us the magnificent blessing of Heaven, where we will be with Him and those whom we love forever in unspeakable joy and peace.

Do you meditate often on Heaven and long for its rewards? One of the stranger things about people in the modern world, even some believers, is that they talk so little of Heaven. And while it is not a place any of us have ever been (so it’s hard to fully understand what it will be like), we should reflect often on the joy that awaits us there.

Part of being ready to go home to the Lord is to long for that day to come. When we want to do something, we prepare for it eagerly; we are motivated and we make sacrifices. We will more naturally do whatever is necessary.

These are five elements constituting a recipe for readiness. You’d better set your house in order ’cause He may be comin’ soon!

 

Rock-a My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham – the Wisdom of an Old Spiritual

In times like these, you need a refuge, a place to rest.

There is an old African-American spiritual that says, “Rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham. Oh, rock-a my soul!” At first glance its meaning may seem obscure, but it speaks to a deep tradition and a kind of spiritual strategy that has great wisdom.

Biblically, the “bosom of Abraham” referred to the place of rest in Sheol, where the righteous dead awaited the Messiah and Judgment Day. It is mentioned once: in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke16:22-23). In it, Lazarus is said to rest and abide in the bosom of Abraham awaiting the Messiah’s full redemption, while the rich man is in Gehenna, a place of torment.

More generally, though, the image of resting in the bosom of Abraham is rooted in that of a sick, frightened, or wounded child in the arms of his father. Most people can remember awakening from a bad dream when they were young and running into their parents’ bedroom for refuge.

Spiritually, Abraham is our father in faith; he also symbolizes the heavenly Father. The ancient Jews considered the bosom of Abraham a place of security, both in life and after death. Resting in the arms of Abraham meant being where the evil one could not reach and the just rested securely.

Christians, too, have taken this image of safety and rest in the arms of Abraham. It finds expression in the beautiful hymn “In Paradisum,” in which Christians are commended to the place (the bosom of Abraham) where Lazarus is poor no longer. One of the antiphons in the final commendation says, “May angels lead you to the bosom of Abraham.”

Then came this African-American spiritual that added a rocking motion to the beautiful rest in Abraham’s arms. The spiritual life is likened to the action of a father rhythmically rocking his child in his arms. The rocking is soothing and reassuring, and (if one is attuned to it) adds a necessary spiritual rhythm to life.

Yes, rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham. Oh, rock-a my soul. In a world of injustice and great darkness, we need the soothing rhythm of the Father’s love. We need to learn to dance and move to its rhythms and not be overcome with the tremors and evils of this world.

Consider the graceful dance in this video and seek to imitate its wisdom. Learn to move to the rhythm of the Father rocking us in His arms. Learn to move to the gentle and steady beat of God’s love as He holds us close.

Rock-a my soul …

Enjoy this video, featuring an interpretation of this beautiful and rhythmic spiritual. It is a graceful and exuberant dance showing security in God’s love and embrace.

You Can’t Take it with You, But You Can Send it on Ahead! Five teachings on Wealth from the Gospel of the 18th Sunday of the Year.

The Gospel today is not merely a warning against greed, it is an instruction on income and wealth given by Jesus to help us root out greed. As the Gospel opens the problem of greed is presented, and then a prescribed perspective about wealth is offered. Lets take a look at both parts of this gospel.

I. The Problem that is Portrayed – The text begins:  Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” He replied to him, “Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?” Then he said to the crowd, “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”

Note that Jesus turns to the crowd (to avoid personally indicting the man of something of which all can all be guilty), and warns without ambiguity that greed must be guarded against. Greed is the insatiable desire for more. It is to want possessions inordinately, beyond what is reasonable or necessary.

Greed is often downplayed today where accumulation and ostentatious display of wealth is often celebrated.  Great rooms with cathedral ceilings, 72″ flat screen TVs and even private home theaters (entertainment centers), fancy cars etc., are shamelessly flaunted.

But greed is at the root of a lot of evils and suffering. Scripture says,

For we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs. (1 Tim 6:7-10)

Note that these are very strong words. Greed causes us to be discontented and ungrateful, both of which are forms of unhappiness. It also leads us into temptations, into a snare or trap that sets loose the pangs of many harmful desires which seem to expand in ever increasing ways. And this desire for more and more too easily leads us to personal destruction, and to inflict great harm, insensitivity  and injustice on others.

On account of greed we almost never say, “I have enough, I will give away the rest or use it for others.” Many also wander from the faith since wealth is generally tied to this world and its demands, and they have “too much to loose.” Hence the faith is set aside in favor of the world, greed overrules God and the demands of the gospel.

The Lord will develop more of this in the parable ahead. But for now note that the Lord warns about the serious and destructive problem of greed. This is the problem that is portrayed.

II. The Perspective that is Prescribed – But the Lord does not simply condemn greed. He next goes on to tell a parable which strives to give a proper perspective about wealth. In itself, wealth is not evil. But without a proper perspective, we too easily fall into greed. Hence the Lord gives five teachings on wealth to help us keep it in perspective and avoid greed.

A. The INITIATION of Wealth – The text says, There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest. 

Notice that the subject of the sentence is the land, not the man. It was the land, not the man who yielded the increase. And hence, whatever we have has come from God and what God has given. Scripture says,

  1. Deuteronomy 8:18 But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth
  2. Psalm 24:1 The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein;
  3. James 1:17  Every good and perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.
  4. 1 Cor 4:7 What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?

As such wealth is not bad or evil. But, in all our things, we must never forget that God is the true owner and we are the stewards. An old song says, God and God alone created all these things we call our own: From the mighty to the small the glory in them all is God’s and God’s alone.

God gives the increase and is the initiator of every blessing, but God remains the owner. And as stewards we are expected to use what belongs to God in accord with what God, the true owner wills. Too easily we forget this and usher in many woes on account of wealth.

And what is the will of God regarding our wealth? The Catechism speaks of God’s will as the “Universal Destination of Goods:”

God gave all the goods of the earth for all the people of the earth. This means that the goods of creation are destined for the whole human race…In his use of things man should regard the external goods he legitimately owns not merely as exclusive to himself but common to others also, in the sense that they can benefit others as well as himself. The ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence, with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits to others, first of all his family. (Catechism 2402, 2404)

If we will remember that we are stewards of God’s gifts, and that he ultimately intends all to be blessed, we can understand that greed is a form of theft, for it inordinately clings to what should be given to another out of justice. If I have two coats, one of them belongs to the poor.

Remembering that the initiation of my wealth is God, I can help to avoid greed by using my wealth for the purposes God gave it. It is not just for me, it is for all the people of this earth.

B. The INCONVENIENCE of wealth– the Parable continues, He asked himself, ‘What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?

The man sees his wealth and because he does not consider generosity an option, is somehow burdened by it: “What shall I do?” he asks anxiously. To be honest, great wealth brings comfort but  it is also a source of inconvenience. Consider just a few things that usually go with wealth:  locks, insurance, keys, alarms, storage facilities, worries, fears, repairs, maintenance, upgrades, cleaning, utilities, etc. We live in an affluent age but consider the stress. Consider also the loss of other more important values, we have bigger houses but smaller families, and our McMansions are really more houses than homes.

Scripture says,

  1. Eccl 5:12 The rest of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep.
  2. Prov 15:16 Better is a little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure and trouble with it.
  3. Proverbs 17:1 Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting, with strife.
  4. Ecc 5:10 Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless.

So, wealth certainly has its comforts, but it also brings with it many inconveniences which make our lives stressful and complicated. Better to be free of great or excessive wealth in accord with God’s will than to be burdened and inconvenienced by it. Here is another perspective that helps us avoid greed.

C. The ILLUSION of wealth- The parable goes on to say,  And [the man] said, ‘This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones. There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!”

And here we are taught that riches easily lead us to an illusion of self sufficiency. We start to rely on self, and on riches, instead of God. But as we shall see the man’s wealth will utterly fail him before the night is out.

Riches can buy us out of temporary troubles, but cannot help with the central problem we face. No amount of money on this earth can postpone our appointment with death and judgment. Riches can get us a first class cabin on the ship, but on the “Titanic” of this earth we are no more set than the people in steerage. Indeed, because of the illusion it creates, wealth will more likely hinder us in our final passage. For it is only in trusting in God that we can make it to the other shore. But too much wealth and self reliance hinders our capacity to call on the Lord and trust him. Yes, wealth tends to create an illusion which cripples us from reaching our goal.  Scripture says:

  1. Ps 49:12 But man, despite his riches, does not endure; he is like the beasts that perish. This is the fate of those who trust in themselves, and of their followers, who approve their sayings.
  2. 1 Tim 6:17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.
  3. Prov 11:28 Whoever trusts in his riches will fall,
  4. James 1:11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.
  5. Prov 30:8 Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.

An old gospel song says, Well the way may not be easy, but you never said it would be. Cause when my way get’s a little too easy you know I tend to stray from thee.

The illusion of riches is well illustrated in the modern age. Our wealth has tended to make us less religious. Less dependent on God. But really, can all our wealth and power, technology and science ultimately save us? We know it can not.

Yet strangely we entertain the illusion of wealth anyway. And we think, like the man in the parable, “Now I’ve got it, now I’m set.” This is an illusion, a set up. And coming to see it for the illusion that it is will help us avoid greed.

D. The INSUFFICIENCY of wealthBut God said to him, ‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’

And thus we see the illusion give way to the reality of insufficiency. Scripture says,

  1. Psalm 49:5 There are men who trust in their wealth and boast of the vastness of their riches. But no man can buy his own ransom, or pay a price to God for his life. The ransom of his soul is beyond him. He cannot buy life without end nor avoid coming to the grave. He knows that wise men and fools must perish and leave their wealth to others. Their graves are their homes for ever, their dwelling place from age to age though their names spread wide through the land. In his riches man lacks wisdom, he is like the beast that perish.
  2. Mat 16:26 For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?

Money, wealth, power popularity and prestige can never really get us what we need. And it’s not just money, At the end of the day, all this world and all its riches cannot save us. Only God can do this. Here too is another perspective on wealth that helps us avoid greed.

E. The INSTRUCTION about wealth – The parable concludes:  Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.”

As we have already remarked, wealth is not intrinsically evil. It is our greed that is sinful and gets us into trouble. And greed clings to wealth unreasonably and excessively. With greed we “store up treasure for our self and are not rich in what matters to God.”

So, what matters to God? What matters is that we be rich in justice, mercy, love, holiness and truth, that we be generous sharers of the bounty he bestows. And thus the Lord teaches us to generously share what we have over and above what we do not need. Consider the following teachings:

  1. Luke 16:9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
  2. Mat 6:19 Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.
  3. 1 Tim 6:17-19 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

There is an old saying: “You take it with you.” And this is true, but only partially. The Lord suggests that we can send our wealth on ahead, that we can store it up in heaven, that we can invest it in eternity. How? Do we put our gold in a balloon and float it up? No, we send it up, we send it on ahead by bestowing it on the poor and needy. This can include our children and family members, for Charity begins at home. But it does not end there. Thus our generosity should extend beyond the family to many of the poor.

If we do this the Lord teaches that the poor we bless will welcome us to heaven and speak on our behalf before the judgment seat. The Lord says when we bless the poor our treasure will be great, and safe in heaven. Further, our generosity and mercy will benefit us greatly on the day of judgment and help us, as St. Paul says above, lay hold of the life that is truly life.

So, you can’t take it with you, but you can send it on ahead.

Therefore, this final teaching or perspective on wealth is to be rich in what matters to God by being generous, not greedy.

And thus we have five teachings on wealth meant to give us perspective, so as to avoid greed.

And trust God! Greed is rooted in fear, but generosity trusts that God will not be outdone in generosity! And while our greatest rewards remain in heaven, God sends “interest payments” even now upon the generous. Scripture says,

  1. Prov 11:24 One man gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.A generous man will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered.
  2. Ecclesiastes 11:1 Cast your bread upon the waters: after many days it will come back to you.
  3. Luke 6:38 Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give, will be the measure you get back.”

Since you can’t take it with you, you might as well send it on ahead. Guard against greed by allowing these five teachings on wealth to give you a proper perspective on wealth.

Don’t Think, Look! A Meditation on the Need for the Mystical

Our intellect is our greatest strength and one of our greatest blessings, yet almost nothing gets us into as much trouble. Our strength is also our struggle. We think we know a few things, and indeed we do—a very few things.

The greatest intellects, if they have wisdom and humility, know this. St. Thomas Aquinas famously said,

In finem nostrae cognitionis Deum tamquam ignotum cognoscimus. (At the end of our knowledge we know God as unknown.) (In Boetium de Trinitate, q. 1, a. 2, ad 1um)

Henri De Lubac, a great intellect of the twentieth century, lamented,

There is probably no thinking person today who does not feel the shallowness and impoverishment of a certain kind of intellectualism and the barrenness of a certain abuse of the historic discipline … The dust and must of rational or positive criticism. … We have believed in the light, [but] we are rather bad at finding it, perhaps because we have, in the end, sought it only in knowledge and interest (The Drama of Atheist Humanism, p. 85).

I suppose by “interest” he means self-interest. That is, we have sought the light of truth not for its own sake, but for what it can do for us. De Lubac longed and hope for a

… return to the golden age of medieval thought, that of St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure … restoring the climate of mystery that was eminently the climate of patristic thought … relearning, if not the use, at least the understanding of symbols … going back to the deep springs …  (Ibid).

And he advises, 

[We must be] cured of our infatuation for a world wholly explainable … (Ibid, p. 86)

And he warns,

As soon as man ceases to be in contact with great mystical religious forces, he inevitably comes under the yoke of a harsher force, which leads him to perdition. (Ibid, p. 90)

Indeed, welcome to the world of post-Christian secularism and atheism; usher in the tyranny of relativism, unmoored and drifting rapidly toward the abyss. Detached from God and the humility of mystery, we fall inexorably to our ruin, all the while arrogantly calling it progress.

As a final witness to the need for mystical silence before God, enter St. Bonaventure, whose feast we celebrated on July 15th. Although he was a dogmatic theologian of the highest rank and would later be declared a doctor of the Church, St. Bonaventure held that our intellectual power, though always present, is inferior to that of the affections of our heart.

We see these insights on beautiful display in the following excerpt from his writings, featured in the Office of Readings for his feast day. As you read this, remember that St. Bonaventure was no anti-intellectual, just one who wisely and humbly recognized the limits of human thought.

Christ is both the way and the door …. A man … should gaze at him hanging on the cross, full of wonder and joy, marked by gratitude, and open to praise and jubilation.

Then such a man will make with Christ a “pasch,” that is, “a passing-over.” Through the branches of the cross he will pass over the Red Sea, leaving Egypt and entering the desert. There he will taste the hidden manna …

For this Passover to be perfect, we must suspend all the operations of the mind and we must transform the peak of our affections, directing them to God alone. This is a sacred mystical experience. It cannot be comprehended by anyone unless he surrenders himself to it. …

Seek the answer in God’s grace, not in doctrine; in the longing of the will, not in the understanding; in the sighs of prayer, not in research; seek the bridegroom not the teacher; God and not man; in darkness not daylight; and look not to the light but rather to the raging fire that carries the soul to God with intense fervor and glowing love. The fire is God. …

Let us … enter into the darkness, silencing our anxieties, our passions and all the fantasies of our imagination … saying: My flesh and my heart fail me, but God is the strength of my heart and my heritage forever. Blessed be the Lord forever, and let all the people say: Amen. Amen!

From The Journey of the Mind to God, by Saint Bonaventure, bishop (Cap. 7.1.2.6.6 Opera omnia 5, 312-313)

Once again, remember that St. Bonaventure was one of the great intellectuals of the Church and a great believer in doctrine. In this passage, his point is that doctrine without grace is just religious studies. Only by grace and humble silence can we pierce the clouds and see toward the purer light that is God.

Yet even our correction, that the intellect must be humble and balanced by mystical reverence, itself must come with a “warning label.”

Refuting the cynical agnosticism and atheism of the day, De Lubac says,

Contempt for truth can never be ours. … Our God is a hidden God indeed, but in himself he is light. “God is light, and in him there is no darkness” (1 John 1). So we refuse to make an idol of darkness (Op cit, p. 86).

We are not to be anti-intellectual. God reveals truths about Himself through creation and Scripture that can be known and must be insisted upon. But our acceptance of the darkness and the dark knowing of the mystical tradition is not an end in itself. For indeed the darkness will give way to the beatific vision, in which the glory of God will eternally unfold for us.

By the grace of faith, we know God, though for now it is in a mirror darkly (cf 1 Corinthians 13:12); we should admit this fact humbly. One day the darkness will fade and we will behold the Lord face to face. Now we know in part; then more fully, even as we have been fully known (Ibid).

Yes, our intellect is both our greatest gift and our biggest stumbling block. Only the humility and silence of the mystical tradition can unlock its greatest potential: moving toward God in deeper wisdom and understanding.

The LORD is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him (Habakkuk 2:20).

 

Three Teachings from the Lord on Prayer – A Homily on the Gospel of the 17th Sunday of the Year

072713Last week’s Gospel featured the Lord insisting that prayer was the “one thing necessary.” In this week’s gospel we see, then, the request by the disciples that the Lord teach them on prayer. In answer the Lord gives us three basic teachings or prescriptions for prayer.

Lets look at these three prescriptions he gives.

I. Pattern of Prayer – The Gospel opens: Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he had finished, one of his disciples said to him,”Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread and forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us, and do not subject us to the final test.”

In giving the “Our Father” we must be careful to understand that the Lord Jesus is not simply giving us words to say. More than this, he is giving us a pattern for prayer. He is “teaching us to pray.” He does this in response to the disciples, who did not ask to be given words to say, but to taught how to pray.

Thus, while the words of the Our Father are precious, it is also important to look at the underlying structure implicit in the prayer so as to learn “how to pray.” Jesus is illustrating by these words what ought to be going on in us interiorly, in our mind and heart as we pray: Here is what the mind and heart of a person of prayer is like.

Let’s consider then, five basic disciplines, taught by Jesus in the Our Father that form a kind of pattern or structure for prayer. I use here the Mattean version of the prayer only because it is more familar, but all the basic elements are the same:

1. RELATE – Our Father who art in heaven – Here begins true spirituality: Relate to the Father! Relate to him with family intimacy, affection, reverence and love. We are not merely praying the “the deity” or the “Godhead.” We are praying to our Father who loves us, who provides for us and, who sent his only Son to die for us and save us. When Jesus lives his life in us and His Spirit dwells in us we begin to experience God as our Abba, (Father).

As developed in other New Testament texts, the deeper Christian word Abba underlies the prayer. Abba is the family word for the more generic and formal word “father.” When my Father was alive I did not call him “Father” I called him “Dad.” This is really what the word Abba is getting at. It is the family word for Father. It indicates family ties, intimacy, close bonds. Why the word Abba is not used here in the Our Father is uncertain. St. Paul develops the theme here: For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Rom 8:15 ) and here: And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”(Gal 4:6).

Ask God for the gift to experience him as Abba. At the heart of our worship and prayer is a deep and personal experience of God’s love and fatherly care for us. The first discipline or practice of the Spiritual life is to RELATE to God as to a Father who loves us and to experience him as Abba.

2. REJOICE – hallowed by thy name! The praise and love of God is the essential discipline and element of our spiritual lives. He is the giver of every good and perfect gift and to Him our praise is due. Praise and thanksgiving make us people of hope and joy. It is for this that we were made. God created us, so that we…might live for his praise and glory (Eph 1:12).

Our prayer life should feature much joyful praise. Take a psalm of praise and pray it joyfully. Take the Gloria of the Mass and pray it with gusto! Rejoice in God, praise his name. Give glory to him who rides above the clouds.

There may be times when, due to some sadness or difficulty, we do not feel emotionally like praising God. Praise the Lord anyhow! Scripture says, I will bless the LORD at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth (Psalm 34:1). Praise is to be a regular discipline of prayer, rooted even more in the will, than just the feelings. God is worthy our praise.

Ultimately praise is a refreshing way to pray, since we were made to praise God, and when we do what we were made to do, we experience a kind of satisfaction and a sense of fulfillment. The second element and discipline of the spiritual life is a life of vigorous praise: REJOICE!

3. RECEIVE – thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven – At the heart of this petition is an openness to God’s will, to his word of instruction, to his plan for us and for this world. When Jesus lives in us we hunger for God’s word and strive to know his will and have it operative in our life.

A basic component and discipline of the prayer and the spiritual life, is to receive the Word and instruction of God, so that his will might be manifest to us, and we can obey. We ought to pray the Scriptures (lectio divina). We ought to study the faith through the Catechism or other means. These are ways that we become open to God’s will that his Kingdom might be manifest in our lives.

The Third element and discipline of prayer and the spiritual life is an openness to to God’s teachings through the Church and Scriptures: RECEIVE!

4. REQUEST – Give us today our daily bread – Intercessory prayer is at the heart of the Christian life. Allow “bread,” in this case, to be a symbol of all our needs. Our greatest need of course is to be fed by God, and thus bread also points to the faithful reception of the Eucharist.

Intercessory prayer is the prayer of asking for God’s help in every need. Take every opportunity to pray for others. When watching the news or reading the newspaper, pray the news. Much of the news contains many things for which to pray: victims of crime, disaster or war, the jobless, homeless and afflicted. Many are locked in sin and bad behavior, corruption, confusion, bad priorities and the like. Many are away from the sacraments and no longer seek their Eucharistic bread who is Christ. Pray, pray, pray.

There are also good things we hear of and we should be grateful and ask that solutions be lasting. This intercessory prayer flows from our love and solidarity with others. We see the world with the compassion of Christ and pray. The fourth element and discipline of prayer and the spiritual life is to INTERCEDE for ourselves and others.

5. REPENT – and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. – Sin is understood at two levels here: 1: sin – (lowercase) our personal sins and trespasses, also referred to as our “trespasses.” 2. Sin (upper case) – referring to the whole climate of sin, the structures of sin that reinforce and underlie our own sins. Referred to here as “evil.”

An essential element of our spiritual life is that we come to recognize the sins, and deep drives of sins, in our own life, to beg deliverance from them as well as mercy.

It is also true that we live in a sin soaked world were the powers and principalities of evil have great influence. We cannot fail to recognize this and pray that it’s power will be curbed.

Then too, we must also pray for the grace to show mercy to others. For it often happens that sin escalates through resentments, and retribution rooted in unforgiving attitudes. We must pray to be delivered from these hurts and resentments so as to be able to break the cycle of violence and revenge that keeps sin multiplying.

But in the end we must pray for the Lord’s grace and mercy to end evil in our own lives and that the whole world. The Fifth element and discipline of prayer and the spiritual life is to REPENT of evil.

So here then is a structure for our prayer and spiritual life contained in the Our Father. Jesus teaches us to pray, and gives us a basic structure for prayer. Some may use this an actual structure for daily prayer. Hence,  if they are going to spend 25 minutes praying, they spend about five minutes on each aspect. Others may use this structure for an over all reference for their spiritual life in general. Hence, one might ask if these aspects and disciplines are reflected well in their overall prayer life.

Thus the first teaching of the Lord is to give us a patten for prayer. We now go on to the next preisciption.

II. The Persistence of Prayer – Jesus goes on to say, “Suppose one of you has a friend to whom he goes at midnight and says, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, for a friend of mine has arrived at my house from a journey and I have nothing to offer him,’ and he says in reply from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked and my children and I are already in bed. I cannot get up to give you anything.’ I tell you, if he does not get up to give the visitor the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence. “And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

Jesus tells a similar parable in Luke 18 of an unjust judge and a persistent widow. Finally the judge gives her justice because of her demanding persistence.

The upshot of both of these parables is that if even a grouchy neighbor and an unjust judge will respond to persistence, how much more will God the Father who is neither unjust or grouchy respond to those who call out to him day and night.

The teaching that we persist in prayer is something of a mystery. God is not deaf, he is not forgetful, he is not stubborn. But yet, he teaches in many places that we are to persevere, even pester him, in our prayer.

Why he teaches this cannot be for his sake, it must be for ours. Perhaps he seeks to help us clarify what we really want, perhaps he wants to strengthen our faith, perhaps he wants to instill appreciation in us for the finally answered prayer. What ever it may be there is something of a mystery here as to the exact reason. But persistent prayer is taught and insisted upon by Jesus, here and elsewhere.

Some may ponder as to why our prayers are not always effective. Some of the usual explanations from Scripture are:

  1. Our faith is not strong enough – Jesus said: “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matthew 21:22) And the Book of James says, But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; (James 1:6-7)  There is also the sad fact of Nazareth where the Lord could work few miracles so much did their lack of faith disturb him (Matt 13:58)
  2. We ask for improper things or with wrong motives – The Book of James says : “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures
  3. Unrepented sin sets up a barrier between us and God so that our prayer is blocked –  “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor His ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities (sins) have separated you from God; your sins have hidden his face from you so that He will not hear” (Isaiah 59:1-2).
  4. We have not been generous with the requests and needs of others – “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered” (Proverbs 21:13)
  5. God cannot trust us with blessings for we are not conformed to his word or trustworthy with lesser things – If you remain in me and my word remains in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be given to you” (John 15:7) and Again: So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? (Lk 16:11-12)

Now all these explanations are fine. But even if none of them apply God often delays anyway.

A man one day prayed to God and asked: “How long is a million years to you?” And said, “About a minute.”  And the man said, “How much is a million dollars to you?”  And God said, “About a penny.”  The man said, “Can I have a penny?” And God said, “In a minute.”

God’s “delay” and our need to persist and persevere in prayer are mysterious aspects of God’s providence but they are taught, there is no doubt about that.

Pray, Pray Pray – The insistence on persistence is taught to us all, not only to the sinful and weak in faith. The Lord says here quite simply: pray, pray, pray pray, pray. Realize that this is part of what is required of the Christian. Prayer is about more than “calling and hauling” or “naming and claiming.” It is also about persevering, about persisting. Monica prayed thirty years, it would seem, for Augustine to accept the Faith. Some of us have prayed even longer for loved ones. In the end God seems to require persistence for some things and we dare not give up or become discouraged. We just have to keep praying: Pray, pray, pray.

Note that the two of the three images for persistent prayer given by Jesus involve an on-going action. We are to ask, seek and knock. Asking can be done only once, but can be repeated. But seeking implies an on-going even lengthy search. Knocking involves a persistent and repeated rapping at the the door. One does not simply give a single pulse, they usually give sever rapid and repeated pulses. When there is no answer the pattern is repeated a few times.

Prescription two for prayer is to persist, to persevere.

III. The Point of Prayer – Jesus then concludes: What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?

The rhythm of the Lord’s analogy seems a bit odd here. If and earthly father knows how to “give good gifts” to his son, then we expect Jesus to say that the Heavenly Father also knows how to give “good gifts” to those who ask. But Jesus does not say “good gifts.” He says, the Father gives “The Holy Spirit.”

Why is this? Because it is the highest gift that contains all others. To receive the Holy Spirit is to receive the love of God, the Glory of God, the life of God, the Wisdom of God. It is to receive God Himself, who comes to live in us as in a temple. And with this gift comes every other gift and consolation. For, by the Holy Spirit we begin to think and see more as God does. We attain to his priorities and desire what he desires. We see sins and worldly attachments begin to go away. And thus the word loses its hold on us and can no longer vex us.

Jesus says elsewhere, Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matt 6:33). Yes, to receive the gift of God the Holy Spirit, it to receive all things besides for nothing more can disturb us. St Thomas Aquinas one day sense the Lord asking what he would like. St Thomas replied nil nisi te, Domine, (Nothing except you O Lord).  And for those who love God and have progressed in prayer, that really is all that is wanted. God can give cars and new jobs, and financial blessings, and for some, such things are well needed. But why not aim for the highest and best gift too? Ask for the Gift of the Holy Spirit. Nil nisi te Domine!

Ultimately the point of all prayer is deep communion with the Lord. This is our high calling, to be in communion with the Lord, here and one day fully in the glory of heaven. Don’t miss the ultimate point of prayer.

Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer!
Thy wings shall my petition bear
To Him whose truth and faithfulness
Engage the waiting soul to bless.
And since He bids me seek His face,
Believe His Word and trust His grace,
I’ll cast on Him my every care,
And wait for thee, sweet hour of prayer!

A Magnificent Description of the Immigrant Church of 1900-1950

The great influx of Catholic immigrants from Europe brought exponential growth to the Catholic population of this country, making Catholicism the single largest religious group by far. Those Catholic immigrants gathered together in ethnic parishes, creating ethnic neighborhoods in which faith and culture were knitted together. They sought survival in a land that seemed at times to be hostile to them and their faith. This caused Catholics to be fiercely loyal to the faith and made the parish the hub of the community, the center around which all else revolved.

Alas, this vivid reality receded between the 1950s and the 1980s, leaving large structures behind that have proved difficult to maintain and are now being closed in large numbers. Sweeping social changes, a cultural revolution, and the slow assimilation of Catholics into the wider American culture led to the demise of a system that is hard not to admire for its organization and effectiveness.

How things collapsed so quickly is a matter for some speculation, but even within the genius of the ethnic Catholic system, there were the seeds of its own destruction, for the fierce clinging of Catholics to their faith was as much due to ethnic bonds as it was to the religion itself.

As we shall see in the description below, and as most bishops can attest, shepherding Catholics is much like herding cats. This struggle is not a new one. It was well on display even in the glory years. Despite the outward appearances of deep unity, there were many fissures just beneath the surface.

As a brief study of this, I would like to quote somewhat extensively from the first chapter of a book by John McGreevy: Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the 20th Century Urban North. McGreevy rather vividly describes the strength of the immigrant Church but also the more negative trends within that powerful system of ethnic Catholicism.

The author’s work is presented in bold, black italics, while my remarks are in plain red text. I have reworked the order of some of his reflections and am presenting excerpts from a much longer chapter. I hope you’ll find his description of the urban ethnic Church as thrilling and vivid as I do.

[From the late 1800s through the middle part of the 20th century] successive waves of European immigrants peopled a massive and impressive church largely in the northern cities of America. In 1920, Catholics in Chicago could worship at 228 Catholic parishes … The [area of the city called] “back of the yards” area physically exemplified this. There, residents could choose between 11 Catholic churches in the space of little more than a square mile: two Polish, one Lithuanian, one Italian, two German, one Slovak, one Croatian, two Irish, and one Bohemian. … Their church buildings soared over the frame houses and muddy streets of the impoverished neighborhood in a triumphant display of architectural and theological certitude. I have always appreciated that older Church buildings reflect a time of greater theological certitude. While one may criticize the presence of opulent church structures in poor neighborhoods, the immigrants built them eagerly, demonstrating a priority of the faith that is much less evident today.

[Even as late as the] 1950s, a Detroit study found 70% of the city’s Catholics claiming to attend services once a week as opposed to only 33% of the city’s white Protestants and 12% of the city’s Jews. Catholics really used to pack the churches. I remember as a youth if you were late for Mass you had to stand in the back.

The Catholic parishes, whether they were Polish, Italian, Portuguese, or Irish, simply dominated the life and activities of the community with quite popular and well attended programs. Yale sociologists investigating in the 1930s, professed amazement at the ability of priest to define norms of everyday social behavior for the church’s members.

The Catholic world supervised by these priests was disciplined and local. Many parishes sponsored enormous neighborhood carnivals each year. Most parishes also contained a large number of formal organizations including youth groups, mothers’ clubs, parish choirs, and fraternal organizations—each with a priest moderator, the requisite fundraisers, and group masses. Parish sports teams, even for the youngest boys, shaped parish identity, with fierce (and to outsiders incongruent) rivalries developing in sports leagues between parishes. CYO rivalries were legendary even into the 1980s in many areas.

These dense social networks centered themselves around an institutional structure of enormous magnitude. Virtually every parish in the northern cities included a church (often of remarkable scale), a convent, a parochial school, a rectory, and occasionally, ancillary gymnasiums or auditoriums. Even hostile observers professed admiration for the marvelous organization and discipline of the Roman Catholic Church, which carefully provided every precinct, ward, and district with churches, cathedrals, and priests. The parish I attended as a boy in Glenview, IL (North Chicago) had a rectory that was externally a replica of Mt. Vernon. The parish plant took up an entire city block. Every grade of the parochial school had its own separate building. There was an indoor pool, a credit union, a large indoor “playdium” that allowed for everything from roller-skating to basketball. The Church and convent were also magnificent.

Brooklyn alone contained 129 parishes and over 100 Elementary schools. In New York City more generally, 45 orders of religious men, ranging from the Jesuits to the Passionist Fathers, lived in community homes. Nuns managed 25 hospitals. The clergy and members of religious orders supervised over 100 high schools, as well as elementary schools that enrolled 214,000 students. The list of summer camps, colleges and universities, retreat centers, retirement homes, seminaries, and orphanages was daunting.

St. Sabina in Chicago was a typical example of an immigrant parish. The parish was founded in 1916 upon request by Irish-Americans. The male members of the 7000-member parish were mostly policemen, streetcar operators, lower management persons, and teachers. Within the tenure of the very first pastor, the parish erected a church costing $600,000 and contracted the work to members of the parish to provide jobs during the depression. They built the school, convent, and rectory as well as founding a staggering array of athletic, religious, and social organizations. By 1937 the Parish plant also included a community center with a full basketball court that seated 1800 people. Attendance at roller-skating shows often climbed to over 10,000. Parishioners packed the church and hall for 11 separate Sunday masses, and ushers organized large crowds at multiple Friday evening novena services. $600,000 in the 1930s was an enormous sum of money, equivalent to nearly 9 million in 2013 dollars. I am presuming that the $600,000 was for the whole plant, not just the Church.

[The Catholic system of neighborhood-based parishes had little equivalence among the Protestants.] When examining the splendidly organized system constructed by Roman Catholics, Protestant analysts bemoaned the parochial chaos in the fragmentation of membership which the Protestant groups had experienced. The general Protestant lack of geographical parishes made it impossible to know who should be responsible, or to hold anyone responsible for the church and of any given area. Synagogues faced similar dilemmas. Most synagogues drew members from a broad area, and competed with neighboring synagogues in terms of ritual and programs.

[In the immigrant years, the Catholic parish made, cemented, and ruled over a local neighborhood]. An observer noted how the church building occupied an entire block, adding that the building’s resounding bells, with its immense throngs of worshipers, with its great tower so built that illumined, it reveals by night the outlines of the cross help define the area. Put another way, the neighborhoods were created not found. For the parishioners, the neighborhood was all Catholic, given the cultural ghetto constructed by the parish. Yes, the Church was the true hub of the community.

Catholics enacted this religiously informed neighborhood identity through both ritual and physical presence. A powerful indicator of the importance of the Catholic parish was found in the answer of Catholics (and some non-Catholics) to the question “where you from?” Throughout the urban North, American Catholics answered the question with parish names—Visitation, Resurrection, St. Lucy’s, etc. All of this meant that Catholics were significantly more likely to remain in a particular neighborhood than the non-Catholics. [And Catholic neighborhoods resisted strong demographic shifts and swings much longer than other urban neighborhoods.] Naming the neighborhood for the parish was common in Chicago.

For American Catholics, neighborhood, parish, and religion were constantly intertwined. Catholic parishes routinely sponsored parades and processions through the streets of the parish, claiming both the parish and its inhabitants as sacred ground. Catholic leaders also deliberately created a Catholic counterpart for virtually every secular organization. The assumption was that the Catholic faith could not flourish independent of the Catholic milieu; schools, societies, and religious organizations were seen as pieces of a larger cultural project. The instinct that faith and culture must be intertwined is a sound one. It is clear that as Catholic culture waned, so did the faith. More broadly, as a Judeo-Christian culture in the U.S. has waned, so has belief and practice of the faith.

[Catholic life was also far deeper in daily life than most Protestant expressions.] Where both Jews and Protestants emphasized the reading of text, Catholics developed multiple routes to the sacred. Theologians describe this as a “sacramental” imagination, willing to endow seemingly mundane daily events with the possibility of grace. When asked, “Where is God?” Catholic children responded “Everywhere!” God was most visible during the Mass, when the parish community shared Christ’s body and blood. But God was also visible in the saints lining the walls of the church, the shrines dotting the yards of Catholic homes, the statue of Mary carted from house to house, the local businesses shuttering their doors on the afternoon of Good Friday, the cross on the church steeple looming above the neighborhood row houses, the priest blessing individual homes, the nuns watching pupils on the playground while silently reciting the rosary, the religious processions through the streets, and the bells of the church ringing each day over the length of the parish. A magnificent description of sacramental imagination here. It is the genius of Catholicism. Unfortunately, to our peril, we have lost of lot of it. Thankfully, though, we have recovered some of it in recent years.

McGreevy then goes on to describe some of the fissures that would later come home to roost. One of these was a fierce independence and near refusal to live within the wider Church:

Each parish was a small planet whirling through its orbit, oblivious to the rest of the ecclesiastical solar system. … All parishes, formerly territorial or not, tend to attract parishioners of the same national background. The very presence of the church and school buildings encouraged parishioners to purchase homes nearby helping to create Polish, Bohemian, Irish, and Lithuanian enclaves within the larger neighborhood.

[But] The situation hardly fostered neighborhood unity. Observers noted that various clergy had nothing but scorn for their fellow priests. Pastors were notorious for refusing to cooperate with (or even visit) neighboring parishes. A Washington Post reporter agreed, “the Lithuanians favored the Poles as enemies, the Slovaks are anti-Bohemian. The Germans were suspected by all four nationalities. The Jews were generally abominated, and the Irish called everyone else a foreigner.” It was a kind of extreme parochialism.

Most of the parishes also included parochial schools staffed by an order of nuns of the same ethnicity as the parish in which they served. Eastern European newcomers resolutely maintained their own schools instead of filling vacant slots in nearby Irish or German schools. Even I, born in 1961, remember how Irish and Italian Catholics were barely on speaking terms with one another. In one parish I knew, an Irish girl married an Italian man, causing quite a stir. After their marriage, the couple could not worship in either of their home parishes, but had to find a third.

A 1916 Census survey revealed 2230 Catholic parishes using only a foreign language in their services, while another 2535 alternated between English and the parishioners’ native tongue. Even small towns divided the Catholic population into Irish, Italian, and Portuguese parishes. Detroit’s Bishop Michael Gallagher, himself the son of Irish immigrants, authorized the founding of 32 national parishes out of a total of 98. In 1933, Detroit Catholics could hear the Gospel preached in 22 different languages. It was a kind of Balkanized scene.

Episcopal attempts to quash national parishes, schools, and societies only strengthened national identities. After one conflict with the local bishop and the Polish community, one participant in the revolt noted that such revolts “gave proof that we will not permit anyone to destroy national dignity, pride, and traditions. Another statement from a Polish group warned of ominous consequences if Poles were to be “deprived of the care of a Bishop from among our own race.” Cardinal Medeiros of Boston was never really accepted by that Archdiocese because he was not Irish. His painful tenure there (1970-1983) is detailed by Philp Lawler in his book The Faithful Departed. And this was long after ethnic rivalries had largely abated in the U.S. The fact is, most American bishops knew that they had a huge mess on their hands; beginning in the 1950s, they began to limit the formation of national parishes and even outright closed some that were smaller and more contentious. To this day a few breakaway Polish National Churches still refuse the authority of the local bishop.

Rather than face outright revolt, bishops working with national groups generally assigned an auxiliary bishop or senior cleric to handle pastoral appointments and mediate intramural disputes. Outright revolt was a real possibility. Rebellion against Church authority did not begin in 1968. It had roots going way back. True dissent from Church teaching was rare, but the rebellion against lawful Church authority likely set the stage for later revolt against what that authority taught.

Despite Episcopal concerns … 55 percent of Catholics in Chicago worshiped at national parishes as late as 1936. In addition, over 80 percent of the clergy received assignments in parishes matching their own national background.

Overall the period of ethnic Catholicism is glorious to behold. Such a vibrant and tight knit expression and experience of the faith! But, it would seem, there was also a dark side.

The fierce and proud independence of the ethnic parishes reacted poorly with the rebellion against authority that was coming in American culture. Today, many of the problems that existed then have only grown: the resistance to the authority of the bishop, the insistence on a perfect “designer parish,” and the tendency to tuck the faith behind other loyalties that have taken the place of ethnicity (e.g., politics). These things were certainly simmering in the vibrant ethnic years, and sometimes they weren’t just simmering—they were right out in the open. Yes, shepherding Catholics is like herding cats.

Still, I’m sorry I missed that period of time. At the end of the day, though, we ought to resist overly idealizing any era. Scripture says, Say not, “How is it that former times were better than these?” For it is not in wisdom that you ask this (Eccles 7:10).

The Priority of Personal Prayer – A Meditation on the Gospel of the 16th Sunday of the Year

Today’s Gospel at Mass is the very familiar one of Martha and Mary. Martha is the anxious worker seeking to please the Lord with a good meal and hospitality. Mary sits quietly at his feet and listens. One has come to be the image of work, the other of prayer.

Misinterpreted? In my fifty-two years I have heard many a sermon that interpreted this Gospel passage as a call for a proper balance between work and prayer. Some have gone on to state that we all need a little of Martha and Mary in us and that the Church needs both Marthas and Marys.

But in the end it seems that such a conclusion misses the central point of this passage. Jesus does not conclude by saying, “Martha, Now do your thing and let Mary do hers.” He describes Mary as not only choosing the better part but also as doing the “one thing necessary.” This does not amount to a call for “proper balance” but instead underscores the radical priority and primacy of prayer. This, it would seem is the proper interpretive key for what is being taught here. Many other passages of the Scripture do set forth the need to be rich in works of charity but this is not one of them.

With that in mind let’s take a look at the details of the Lord’s teaching today on the  Priority of Personal Prayer.

I. PROMISING PRELUDE – Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. Our story begins by showing Martha in a very favorable light. She opens her door, her life, if you will, and welcomes Jesus. This is at the heart of faith, a welcoming of Jesus into the home of our heart and life. Surely Revelation 3:20 comes to mind here: Behold I stand at the door and knock. If any one hears my voice and opens the door I will come in and eat with him and he with me.

While we acknowledge this promising prelude we ought also to underscore the fact that the initiative is that of Jesus. The text says Jesus entered a village…. In the call of faith the initiative is always with God. It was not you who chose me, it was I who chose you (Jn 15:16) Hence, while we must welcome Him, God leads. Martha hears the Lord’s call and responds. So far so good.

What happens next isn’t exactly clear but the impression is that Martha goes right to work. There is no evidence that Jesus asked for a meal from her, large or small. The text from Revelation just quoted does suggest that the Lord seeks to dine with us, but implies that it is he who will provide the meal. Surely the Eucharistic context of our faith emphasizes that it is the Lord who feeds us with his Word and with his Body and Blood.

At any rate, Martha seems to have told the Lord to make himself comfortable and has gone off to work in preparing a meal of her own. That she later experiences it to be such a burden is evidence that her idea emerged more from her flesh than the Spirit.

II. PORTRAIT OF PRAYER She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Now here is a beautiful portrait of prayer: to sit at the Lord’s feet and listen.

Many people think of prayer as something that is said. But prayer is better understood as a conversation, and conversations include listening. Vocal prayer, intercessory prayer and the like are all noble and important but the prayer of listening is too often neglected.

Prayer is not just telling God what we want, it is discovering what He wills. We have to sit humbly and listen. We must learn to listen, and listen to learn. We listen by devoutly and slowing considering scripture (lectio divina), and by pondering how God is speaking in the events and people in our life, how God is whispering in our conscience and soul.

Jesus calls this kind of prayer “the one thing necessary” as we shall see. What Mary models and Martha forgets is that we must first come (to Jesus) then go (and do what he says)….that we must first receive, before we can achieve…..that we must first be blessed before we can do our best……that we must listen before we leap into action.

III. PERTURBED and PRESUMPTUOUS Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” – And so, sure enough Martha who is laboring in the flesh, but not likely in the Spirit and in accord with the Lord’s wishes, is now experiencing the whole thing as a burden. She blames her sister for all this but the Lord’s response will make it clear that this is not Mary’s issue.

One sign that we are not in God’s will is the experiencing of what we are doing as a burden. We are all limited and human and will experience ordinary fatigue. It is one thing to be weary in the work but it is another thing to be weary of the work.

A lot of people run off to do something they think is a good idea. And maybe it is a fine thing in itself. But they never asked God. God might have said, “Fine.” or He might have said, “Not now, but later.” Or He might have said, “Not you but some one else.” Or he might have just plain said, “No.” But instead of asking they just go off and do it and then when things don’t work out will often times blame God: “Why don’t you help me more!”

And so Martha is burdened. She first blames her sister. Then she presumes the Lord does not care about what is (to her) an obvious injustice. Then she takes presumption one step further and presumes to tell the Lord what to do: “Tell her to help me.”

This is what happens when we try to serve the Lord in the flesh. Instead of being true servants who listen to the Lord’s wishes and carry them out by his grace, we end up as angry and mildly (or not) dictatorial. She here is Martha, with her one hand on her hip and her index finger in the air 🙂 Jesus will be kind with her but firm.

IV. PRESCRIBED PRIORITY Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her. Now don’t let the Lord have to call you by your name twice! But it is clear the Lord wants her attention and that she has stumbled on a fatal mistake that we all can too easily make. She lept before she listened.

The Lord observes and says that she is anxious about many things. Anxiety about many things comes from neglect of the one thing most necessary: to sit at the feet of the Lord and listen to him.

In life, the Lord will surely have things for us to do but they need to come from him. This is why prayer is the “one thing” necessary and the better part: because work flows from it and is subordinate to it.

Discernment is not easy but it is necessary. An awful lot of very noble ideas have floundered in the field of the flesh because they were never really brought before God and were not therefore a work of grace.

Jesus does not mean that ALL we are to do is pray. There are too many other Gospels that summon us to labor in the vineyard to say that. But what Jesus is very clear to say is that prayer and discernment have absolute priority. Otherwise expect to be anxious about many things and have little to show for it.

Scripture makes it clear that God must be the author and initiator of our works: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast. For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should walk in them (Eph 2:8-10).

And old prayer from the Roman Ritual also makes this plain: Actiones nostras, quaesumus Domine, aspirando praeveni et adiuvando prosequere: ut cuncta nostra oratio et operatio a te semper incipiat, et per te coepta finiatur. Per Christum Dominum nostrum (Direct we beseech Thee, O Lord, our prayers and our actions by Thy holy inspirations and carry them on by Thy gracious assistance, so that every work of ours may always begin with Thee, and through Thee be ended). Amen

This song reminds that when we really ARE working in the Lord’s will and as the fruit of prayer we love what we do and do so with joy. This song says, “I keep so busy working for the Kingdom I ain’t got time to die!”

On the Balance of Love and Correction according to St. Gregory.

102814Applying salutary  discipline, and balancing it with necessary consolations and encouragement is never an easy task. It is possible that a parents can be too severe on their children, such that they become disheartened, and lack necessary self-esteem. But it is also possible that parents can be too lax such that their children become spoiled and lack proper self-discipline and humility. Hence Scripture seeking to balance teaching with encouragement says, Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord (Eph 6:4)

Pastors too in their leadership of parishes need also to find proper balance, offering kindness, consolations, and encouragement and witness to their congregation, while not failing to properly rebuke sin and warn of its consequences  and of the coming judgment. And thus St Paul says, You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory (1 Thess 2:11-13). Thus, like a loving Father must the priest exhort, as one who teaches, wants and expects the best for his flock, but also as one who loves them.

It is hard to argue that we have the balance right in the Church today. Correction and rebuke, according to what most Catholics report, is seldom a feature of preaching today. And where this is the case it is hard to argue that the priest is acting like a father. For a father would see how sin can threaten the future of his children and in love he will correct, being willing to upset his child to prevent something worse. Yet in some places there are also priests who teach and preach as if trying to win an argument and prevail over others, than as an act of loving concern, and perhaps he will be unnecessarily harsh.

In families too the trend seems to lean toward being too permissive and thus the necessary balance is lost. Too many children today have become incorrigible, since they did not learn discipline when they were young. Too many are bold toward elders and have lost the humility necessary for learning and maturity. And this speaks to families where the balance between encouragement and discipline has been lost. It is also true that some children are oppressed by the other extreme and are weighed down with discouragement, poor self image and anger.

Hence balance is necessary.

St Gregory in his Pastoral Rule presents some good advice in regard to this balance. And while much of what he says is common sense, it is important to review it since common sense isn’t as common today. What he says is also excellent since he uses two very memorable images that can stay with the thoughtful priest or parent who reads it. There hear what St. Gregory has to say about addressing the wound of sin:

But often a wound is made worse by unskilled mending…in every case, care should be provided in such a way that discipline is never rigid, nor kindness lax.… Either discipline or kindness is lacking if one is ever exercised independently of the other. … This is what the scriptures teach through the Samaritan who took the half dead man to the inn and applied wine and oil to his wounds. The wine purged them and the oil soothed them.

Indeed, it is necessary that whoever direct the healing of wounds must administer with wine the bite of pain, and with oil the caress of kindness; so that what is rotten may be purged to by the wine, and what is curable may be soothed by the oil.

In short, gentleness is to be mixed with severity, a combination that will prevent the laity from becoming exasperated by excessive harshness, or relaxed by undue kindness. … Wherefore David said, “Your rod and your staff have comforted me.” (Psalm 23:4) Indeed, by the rod we are punished and by the staff we are sustained. If therefore, there is correction by the rod it, let there also be support through the staff. Let there be love that does not soften, vigor that does not exasperate, zeal that is not immoderate or uncontrolled, and kindness that spares, but not more than is befitting. Therefore justice and mercy are forge together in the art of spiritual direction. (Rule II.6)

Practical reminders to be sure, but also with the memorable images of wine and oil, rod and staff. Both are necessary, both must balance the other. There must be clarity with charity, and charity with clarity; there must be veritatem in caritate (truth in love).