Saturday, May 20, 2017

LOVE AND SAFETY PINS

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The gospel texts at mass this past week have been from Chapter 15 of the Gospel of John, Jesus’ discourses to his apostles at the last supper. I’ve always found John’s writings too abstract for me to connect with easily: “God is love,” “Remain in me as the Father remains in me and I in the Father.” This year, however, these passages finally begun to touch me.



Each morning my meditation has been about a different aspect of love. “My Father and I will come to him and make our home with him.” “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him and he with me”(Rev.3:20). “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love.” To make the text more personal, I asked myself who the people are whose love has made me able to “remain in Christ’s love” (at least to the extent that I do).  I mentally filled the front two rows of seats in church with people whose love has shaped and continues to shape my life.


“I no longer call you servants, I call you friends” (Jn 15:15). Of all the holy men and women in the Old Testament, only one, Abraham, was ever called a “friend of God” (cf. Is 41:8, 2 Chron. 20:7), but here was Jesus calling me his close personal friend that morning. I sat with that one for half an hour.


Meditations like these this week have made me more aware of (and grateful to) the countless people in my life, past and present, near and far, cousins and colleagues and confreres, who have let me experience God’s love, and so made me able to pass that love on to others.


It’s been a good week that way.


On Thursday I came across the following prose-poem in a book, A Shimmer of Something, Lean Stories of Spiritual Substance, by Brian Doyle. As I read it, I felt that I was getting an insight into the way God loves and cares about each one of us. I think you might enjoy it.


On Pinning the Number 92 on My Son Before Basketball Tryouts


His back all tense and a dagger of sweat down the middle of his shirt like a blade. I try to cut the heat by saying man, ninety-two, what are you, a defensive tackle? But he’s not exactly in the mood which I can tell just from the tone of his silence. I fumble with the safety pins to make sure all four corners are tacked down tight. The last thing you need at tryouts is your number flapping in the wind like a geek. I get three pins in clean and fiddle around the last one a while on purpose because I am utterly overwhelmed and am trying not to kneel down in the echoing hallway And cry and bang my head on the icy concrete because I love this boy more than I Can ever tell you or explain even to myself and I so want him to do well and make The team but he might not and then I would have to give him the speech about how To mill pain into accomplishment, how to turn it on the lathe of your will and such, You know the speech, you got it from your dad, I got it from mine, every dad ever Has to give that speech eventually which stinks because it means every child ever Sooner or later feels the hot lick of disappointment and pain and embarrassment & Humiliation, the girl says no, your name’s not on the roster posted on the gym wall, You punt the test, you miss the shot, and this is not even to mention the major pain That comes for us all but in the best of worlds comes later in life and not when you Are a kid like this boy with my hand on his shoulder in the roiling hall by the gym. I click the last pin and cup his face in my hand and say dude, I love you, be quick, Be yourself, be relentless, and we touch fists and he runs off with the other players And I stand there shaking so bad one of the other dads looks at me apprehensively Like is he going to have to phone the emergency medical techs or what so I shuffle Outside into the wild wet air and try not to think about anything at all whatsoever But as usual I wonder why the very best thing is the one thing that hurts the worst.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

A MOTHER'S DAY WISH

This past week, from Monday through Thursday, I directed a retreat for a group of elderly Sisters of Charity at their retirement facility, “the Villa,” in Florham Park, N.J. These sisters, whose mother house at Convent Station is across the road from the Villa, were my elementary school teachers for eight years. So whenever they ask me to do something for them in return, I automatically agree. I confess, though, that I’d forgotten what actually happens when I preach a retreat at the Villa.

Although these women, many in their 80’s or 90’s, do not see themselves as saints, they certainly walk in the footsteps of the “holy women” of every age. All of them suffer from the normal infirmities and limitations of old age, and many suffer from heavier crosses such as blindness, deafness, or confinement to a wheelchair. Most of the women I spoke with knew that their “work” at this stage of their life is to pray, and pray, and pray some more. “What else can I do, right?” was a phrase I heard more than once.

One sister, in the course of  speaking with me about putting up with her limitations, casually mentioned, “Well, I’m over a hundred years old, so sometimes I find it hard to concentrate on my prayers.”  Another began describing her closeness to Christ, when her eyes suddenly filled with tears and she apologized, “I’m sorry, father; the rest is so personal I can’t really put it into words.” I swallowed hard at that one.     

So, what actually happened, of course, was that these beautiful daughters of the Lord gave ME the retreat. In their spiritual conversations with me, they overwhelmed me with their humility, their patient acceptance of their infirmities, their insights into the spiritual life, and their closeness to Christ through prayer.

I wonder how many of the commuters who drive past the pretty buildings on Park Avenue in Florham Park every morning realize that they’re passing by a spiritual powerhouse more powerful than any atomic energy plant. Behind the trees and the shrubs and surrounded by neatly trimmed lawns, the sisters are praying for their families, for their former students, for the commuters driving past, for the Church throughout the world, for people in war-torn countries. Their list has no end.


To all of our mothers, grandmothers, godmothers, to all those who serve in the role of mother for someone, especially for the holy women of the Villa, each of whom has served as a mother to hundreds or thousands of children over the decades, have a blessed Mother's Day!

And the same to Our Lady of Fatima, as we celebrate today, May 13, 2017 the 100th anniversary of her first appearance to the three children in the Cova da Iria. (Here's a six-minute video on Fatima)

Saturday, May 6, 2017

MEETING THE GOD OF MYSTERY

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On Monday, May 8, I will begin giving a retreat to the Sisters of Charity, in their “Villa,” or retirement home, in Convent Station, N.J. (We could use your prayers, please!). The following is a conference that I plan to give, much of it borrowed from Fr. Demetrius Dumm, O.S.B. in his book Flowers in the Desert, pp 69-70. I got a lot from writing it, so I’m offering it to you in the hope that you may find something helpful in it as well.

Think for a moment about your idea of God: most of us think of God as someone close to us, who loves us and supports us, who is always at our side to lead and guide and protect. But this can be a very misleading view of God:


If your God is someone you can understand and comprehend, and can be comfortably grasped by your limited human intellect, then sorry, but that can’t be God. God is, in his deepest nature, an incomprehensible far beyond our ability to comprehend.

A good illustration of this point is the story of the two disciples who were walking the seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus, on the first Easter morning, sick with discouragement:  Jesus was dead, and so were their hopes. Suddenly, the risen Christ joined them, and started walking beside them on the road. But, St. Luke tells us, “their eyes were prevented from seeing who it was.” Jesus, their beloved friend,  had become a stranger to them.

"but they did not recognize Him."
How could this have happened? Well, it was simply because they had had expected something  from the earthly career of Jesus that was completely different from what God had planned. “We had hoped that he would be the one to liberate Israel.”

When Jesus, the would-be Messiah, had been executed, their eyes had become closed to the possibility that he could still be the Messiah. The risen Jesus had become a stranger to them because he did not fit their preconceptions – they were not looking for a failed Messiah, a suffering and crucified Savior.

Are you expecting to meet in your life a crucified Savior, or do you sometimes complain that you don’t understand why God has allowed for so much suffering in your life? The risen Jesus, as stranger, represented the mystery of God’s way.

To enter into this divine mystery, the two bewildered men  had to put aside their old ideas as they listened to Jesus give them a new interpretation of the Scriptures, “Then he began with Moses and all the Prophets , and explained to them the passages which referred to himself in every part of the Scriptures.”

By this time they had reached their home village and Jesus was about to leave them. But, having opened their minds and hearts to them, the two also opened their home to them as well. “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening, and the night is coming on.”

As they broke the bread of hospitality with him, “Their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” What they recognized was more than the familiar features of their friend: They were suddenly awakened to a new insight and a new wisdom that attuned them to the mysterious ways of God.



They saw that the darkest part of the divine mystery
-- the dying of the Messiah -- had become the occasion for the most glorious victory -- the Resurrection of Jesus!

They had come face to face with the cloud, and then, with the guidance of Jesus, the cloud was suddenly transfused with light.

Luke also highlights, in Acts, the heroic hospitality required of the Jewish Christian Church, made up entirely of practicing Jews, as they are challenged to accept the gentiles into the new community of God’s people.

A Jewish-Christian church making room for the once despised Gentiles is a model for all of us who find it almost impossible to accept some change in our carefully planned lives -- whether the loss of a dear friend, a forced retirement, the diminishment of our various powers that comes with the aging process.  

But, all openness comes at a price. Our instincts tell us that to be open is to risk being hurt, or being deceived by others or making mistakes and being laughed at.

But being open also makes it possible for us to encounter Jesus in the Cross
and allows God to give us the gifts of grace, and growth and newness.

St. Benedict has a lot to teach us about openness: He couches it in terms of hospitality in Chapter 53 of  the Holy Rule, when he tells us to receive the stranger as we would Christ himself, Benedict has in mind much more than simply how we should treat guests: this chapter has a vastly wider application to our entire way of being in the world, and especially to our spiritual quest for God: Benedict knows that hospitality as openness of heart and mind is essential to the life of any Christian.



Openness is one of the basic prerequisites for intimacy with my fellow humans, and is just as necessary for intimacy with Christ.  I have to be ready to greet our Lord in everything and everyone, but especially in the CROSS: in the unexpected, when my plans or projects get fouled up, in the unsettling, when someone points up a glaring fault of mine. in the new,  when I’m in a new job, move to a new town, or find myself in a new stage of life,

Benedict knows that we have to leave ourselves open to the spirit without any restrictions. This seems to me to be the underlying message of Chapter 53 of the Holy Rule: his own experience as well as Christian tradition tell him that it is precisely in the new, the unsettling, and the spiritually challenging that we are most likely to find the God we seek.

During this season when the church offers us the examples of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and of the earliest Christians who were heroically hospitable to non-Jews who asked to join their community. Let us pray for one another that the Risen Lord will find us as open as they were to his unexpected presence in our lives.  


Saturday, April 29, 2017

RUNNING WITH PETER

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"Peter threw himself into the sea."
Early this week, I was reading the post-Resurrection scene described in John 21, in which Peter and the apostles are out fishing, and Jesus calls to them from the shore. As soon as Peter hears that “it is the Lord,” he throws on some clothes and literally (according to the Greek) “throws himself” into the water to start eagerly toward Jesus.


Remember that Peter had denied Jesus three times, and, I imagine, must still have felt guilty about that.

I could easily picture Peter reacting differently when he realized that it was Jesus calling from the shore. He could have said to himself, “Uh-oh. It’s Jesus. He’s going to remember how I denied him three times. How can I face him? What will I say to him? Maybe if I shrink down in the back of the boat he won't notice me. I certainly don’t want to have to look him in the eye. I’m really stuck!”

But, despite the unfinished business between him and Jesus, he didn’t hesitate to run through the water toward Jesus as fast as he could, not even waiting for the boat to take him to shore. His love for the Lord far outweighed any feelings of guilt or unworthiness, or any questions about Jesus’ forgiveness. He just wanted to be near the Lord.


I was touched by Peter’s deep faith in God’s forgiveness, his trust that Jesus had already forgiven him, and the fact that his own sense of guilt was far outweighed by his love for Jesus.

Peter’s attitude is a powerful reminder that God loves us exactly as we are, right now, as hard as that may be for some of us to believe. But it’s true-- just ask Peter. He’ll invite you to throw yourself into the water and hurry alongside him to get to Jesus as fast as the two of you can go. Maybe on the way you’ll catch some of Peter’s spirit of confidence in Jesus’ infinite love and boundless forgiveness.  


Our Savior insisted that it was for sinners that he had come into the world, and it was to save us from our sins that he had suffered and died. Let us take him at his word, and, with Peter, hurry to be with him.  
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"So they cast the net, and were not able to pull it in" (Jn 21:6)

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Saturday, April 22, 2017

ROAD TEST

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I have began “road testing” the manuscript of my book of daily reflections for the Easter season. (I'm waiting to hear from Liturgical Press about getting it published by them.) Each morning during the past week, I’ve sat in church and used it for my meditation. So far, so good. The one for this morning, (Saturday of the Octave of Easter), for example, proved to be a real gift.


The chapter is based on a verse from today’s gospel passage: “Then Jesus told them: ‘Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news to all creation.’” (Mark 16:15)
The main point of the short story is this: As a Christian, I am called not just to speak the Good News but to actually be the Good News for others by my words and my actions -- often in simple and unforeseen ways. To focus my thoughts, I used the reflection questions at the end of the chapter. The first one is: “Think of some people who serve as Good News for you. Do they do so by their words? Their deeds? Their attitude toward life? By simply being who they are?”

I spent several delightful minutes thinking about all the people who are God’s Good News for me. Fortunately, no one was near enough to notice the big smiles that followed one after another as I thought of various people, young and old, men and women, who have announced, and keep announcing, the Good News to me.

(photo by Marylou and Jerome Bongiorno)
A few minutes later, I was in my choir stall singing Lauds with my brother monks, still thinking about “people who serve as Good News” for me. As I looked at each monk, one after the other, I realized that each one of them was, in his own unique way, Good News for me. This beautiful and gratifying exercise made me appreciate how much these men have shaped my relationship with God over the years.


Later, as I sat at breakfast, I looked at the rest of the reflection questions: 2. Are there people for whom you act as Good News? 3. Think of the various ways in which you are Good News for each of them. 4. How might you become a more effective bearer of the Good News?

These last three questions seem problematic, and I think I need to get better ones. In Question 2, For example, how do I know whether or not there are people for whom I am Good News? And Questions 3 and 4 assume that I know what makes me Good News for others.

When I think of all the people who are Good News for me, I realize that not a single one of them knows they are that for me, nor do they do anything on purpose so as to be Good News for me. Maybe, then, the best way for me to be a bearer of the Good News to others is to do my best to be Christlike in everything, and let Him use me as He sees fit.

So, this morning's "road test" has shown me a few design flaws that need to be corrected. If you have any suggestions on the topic, please share them with the rest of us -- I would be grateful for the help.
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He is risen! Alleluia!
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Saturday, April 15, 2017

WAITING WITH MAGDALENE

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SITTING AT THE TOMB


Matthew’s account of Good Friday ends with these verses:


So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb. (Mt 27:59-61)

During our simple, somber service of Vigils this Holy Saturday morning, we monks took up our post, sitting beside the tomb with Mary Magdalene. As we prayed the psalms, I began wondering what was going through her mind as she sat there? What was she feeling? I don’t imagine that on that first Holy Saturday she was waiting for her beloved Jesus to rise from the dead and walk out of the tomb. She must have been overwhelmed by grief.


But, then, what about us, who have already encountered the Risen Lord? What is it that we are waiting for as we sit beside the sealed tomb with her? Certainly, we’re waiting for Easter morning to come, so that we can celebrate and sing and shout “Alleluia!” But, the Paschal Mystery (Christ’s passion, death and resurrection) should also make a difference in the way we live every day.


The expression “expectant church” came to mind as the rising sun was brightening the stained-glass windows. Although “expectant church” has several meanings, I simply reflected on the expression from the point of view of the Latin verb expectare, “to await.”


I began to ask myself if we Christians look like an “expectant church” when we settle into a comfortable truce with the materialism and self-centered culture around us. Do we act like an “expectant church” when we quarrel among ourselves over liturgical practices or changing translations of texts? The expression “sacristy church” came to mind as well -- a church that is turned inward, concerned only about itself and its inner power struggles and institutional concerns.


Another expression occurred to me, from the prayer after the “Our Father” at mass: “as we wait in joyful hope.” That became my prayer as we finished the psalms and readings of Vigils.  


Lord, help your church to be a sign of joyful hope to the world. Help her, by her actions, to be a church of the poor, of the alien, of the persecuted, and especially a church that is a sign for those whose lives are filled with darkness and despair. Help us to be “Easter People,” each of us an Alleluia from head to toe, even as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. Alleluia.
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A BLESSED EASTER!


      

Saturday, April 8, 2017

OPTIMISM AND HOPE

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A week ago, I heard someone make a distinction between “optimism” and “hope,” and I've been pondering that difference, off and on, ever since. I’ve noticed that we often use the words “hope” and “optimism” interchangeably in everyday speech, for example, “As he began running the diagnostic tests, the engineer was hopeful that he would be able to pinpoint the problem.” The word “optimistic” would fit just as well in this case.  

Just now I Googled “optimism versus  hope” and found lots of different approaches. A counselling psychologist, a rabbi, and an educational leadership instructor each had their own definitions and made their own distinctions between the two ideas. The following reflection includes, along with my own ideas, a couple of phrases and ideas gathered during my ten-minute web search.


I think it was the psychologist who wrote “Optimism can be defined as being confident of the future or success of something, it claims everything will be all right despite reality.” I’ve heard optimism described as the typical American virtue, the “can-do” attitude that built a railroad across a continent, dug a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, and put a man on the moon. The problem is, as everyone knows, that reality does not always cooperate with our dreams, nor does it always yield to our best efforts -- that's just the way life is sometimes. And optimism cannot stand up to that kind of abject failure of our dreams and wishes. As another writer puts it, “When real trouble comes, the house [of optimism] inevitably comes crashing down.”


“Hope, on the other hand, is a far deeper and more rigorous disposition. It is built on surer foundations and looks to greater realities than just the material world. Hope knows the goodness and value of life in the face of limits, and even in suffering. Unlike mere optimism, hope is able to weather the storm when trouble comes.” I find this a very useful description -- by saying that hope is founded on ultimate realities outside the material world, this author is connecting hope with religious belief.

Last night I had a profound experience of the difference between optimism and hope during a service of the stations of the cross.


.As Jesus fell the third time under the weight of his cross, overwhelmed by its weight, by his human fear of death, and by the weight of the world's sins, I realized that no one would say that Jesus was “optimistic” in this situation. As he hung in agony on the cross, the word “optimism” didn’t fit. But Christians say that Jesus never lost hope: he believed that his heavenly Father would not abandon him. For us, the cross is a sign of hope. The classical Christian symbol of the virtue of hope is the anchor: hope casts an anchor into the future, and fastens itself to God. We trust that God is greater than our problems, that Love conquers hatred, that suffering becomes the means of our salvation, and that death itself is ultimately  transformed into eternal life. This is not optimism, it is hope -- it is based on realities that lie beyond the limits of physical suffering and temporary defeats.


As we enter into the mysteries of Christ’s redemptive suffering, death and resurrection, we may not feel very optimistic about many of the things that are happening in our world, in our country, or in our personal lives. But the Cross and the empty tomb will revive our hope, our belief, anchored in God’s promise, that in the end, goodness and life will be victorious over sin and death.


p.s. Check the list of labels to the left for previous posts about "Palm Sunday."

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