Saturday, October 6, 2018

A CHALLENGING COLLAGE

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The seventy disciples
During this past week a few images have been forming an interesting and challenging collage in my head. I'll put some of them together randomly in this post.

"CARRY NO MONEY BAG, NO EXTRA SHIRT"

Jesus sends his seventy(-two) disciples out to preach, heal, and cast out demons. But he tells them not to carry any supplies with them: The messengers of the Kingdom are to be totally dependent on God for everything. 



"LET ME FIRST GO AND BURY MY FATHER"

Then, as he begins his long journey to Jerusalem (Lk Chapters 9-18) various people come to him asking to follow him on the journey. One wants to go bury his father first, another wants to go say good-bye to his family, and so on. Jesus' reply is always the same urgent insistence on following immediately. One commentary says that these interactions "show the severity and unconditional nature of Christian discipleship."  I asked myself if my following of Jesus is unconditional. If I were to got to Jesus and offer my lukewarm, watered-down version of following, what would he reply?


I SAW SATAN FALL LIKE LIGHTNING

The disciples return from their first mission delighted. Listen to the beginning of today's gospel reading:  The seventy-two disciples returned rejoicing and said to Jesus,"Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name."Jesus said, "I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky. Behold, I have given you the power 'to tread upon serpents' and scorpions and upon the full force of the enemy and nothing will harm you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven." (Lk 10:17 ff.) 
One commentator notes "The effect of the mission of the seventy-two is characterized by the Lucan Jesus as a symbolic fall of Satan. As the kingdom of God is gradually being established, evil in all its forms is being defeated; the dominion of Satan over humanity is at an end." I noticed the key words "gradually" and "is being defeated" (present progressive tense). The victory is already won, but not yet. We have been recruited by our baptism to fight for the establishing of the kingdom. But how committed am I to fighting the battle?


FRANCIS AND THERESE



This week we celebrated the feasts of two real warriors for the kingdom. On Monday we remembered that little twenty-four year-old cloistered nun who was a warrior from head to toe: St. Therese of Lisieux. Her name "the Little Flower" can be misleading. A look at her biography shows that Satan had his hands full with that determined woman.  Then on Thursday we celebrated St. Francis of Assisi, a warrior for the kingdom if ever there was one. Both he and Therese gave us living examples of  "the severity and unconditional nature of Christian discipleship." I had to remind myself that, rather than blushing for shame at their example, I should try to imitate them in becoming a relentless warrior for the kingdom. 

This collage is unsettling -- it makes me squirm. All this talk about the "severity and unconditional nature of the Christian discipleship," about being engaged in a relentless fight against the powers of evil, about being a fearless warrior like Therese or Francis.

Yet that's a major reason why we venerate the saints, isn't it? To ask their help in imitating their fierce determination to follow Christ at all costs. 


Saturday, September 29, 2018

WHICH OPERATING SYSTEM?

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I was rereading Fr. Richard Rohr's "The Divine Dance" this week, the section where he uses the analogy of a computer's "operating system." This post is a mixture of my thoughts and Fr. Rohr's.

First, a definition of a computer's "operating system," or "OS:"
"An operating system is software that communicates with the hardware and allows other programs to run. Every desktop computer, tablet, and smartphone includes an operating system that provides basic functionality for the device. Common desktop operating systems include Windows and OS X."

OUR DEFAULT OS


As human beings, our first experiences are sensory ones  (taste, touch, etc.). As a species we've survived by learning to operate well on this sensory level -- we depend on our senses for food, self-defense, and so forth. Over millennia we've fine-tuned our use of the senses in the physical sciences so that we keep achieving advances that are close to miraculous in medicine, physics, astronomy and so forth.


We've become so used to thinking and operating on this sensory level of reality that we may have become the first civilization that has forgotten that there's another operating system besides the sensory-based one, a system that is not bounded by the limits of time and space. (It might be helpful if you were to go back and look at two posts about the Holy Trinity: Feb. 10, 2018, and May 26, 2018.)

THE ALTERNATIVE OS

This alternative operating system is where we interface with God, where we experience the Beyond of things. Our explorations into the Divine dimension of reality, however, can't be understood with the normal mind, the one trained in the sensory operating system -- they're best perceived with an alternative OS what we call the contemplative mind. Here's how Richard Rohr puts it. 

"Really, it's only God in us who understands the things of God. We must take this very seriously and know how it operates in us, with us, for us and as us. The failure to access our own operating system has kept much Christianity very immature and superficial, filled with secondhand cliches instead of any calm, clear and immediate experience of reality. It has left us argumentative instead of appreciative.
....
"Thus anything in the realm of mystery -- which happens to be, of course, all mature religion, including the idea of the Trinity -- remains static in the form of dogma or doctrine, highly abstract, densely metaphysical, and largely irrelevant. Certainly not life-changing ....

"What I believe, and have dedicated my life to reversing, is that we have not moved doctrine and dogma to the level of inner experience. As long as 'received teaching' doesn't become experiential knowledge, we're going to continue creating a high quantity of disillusioned ex-believers."


It seems to me that one of Rohr's points is that religious people sometimes have a hard time escaping the comfortable closed-in world of the material OS where you measure things out, where there is always a comfortable connection between cause and effect, and where there is no place for mystery. A church that is stuck in this world view offers no experience of the Beyond, and says nothing to people who are looking for an experience of transcendence and meaning in their lives.


THE RISE OF THE NONES

Fr. Rohr blames this confusion of operating systems in the church for the growing number of "nones." (A "none" is someone who, when asked to fill in their religious affiliation answers "none.")

[Yet] many of our young people, and many of our old people, too, are not having it. They're leaving the right-belief systems of their parents and grandparents in droves. This is a mass exodus from institutional faith that demographers are calling "the rise of the Nones." Nones comprise about 20 percent of all Americans, and one third of Americans under thirty. 

I think he's right. Having opened this can of worms, I suppose that I'll have to write a follow-up post.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

SOUNDS LIKE A PLAN?

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This week I bought a pocket calendar for next year. In fact, it covers 2019 and 2020. I filled in the dates of events such as our community retreat next June and other events that have been scheduled far in advance.


I have a dentist's appointment on March 20, 2019; I've written it in blue ballpoint pen. The page shows the entire month, with the other thirty days blank, waiting to be filled in with my plans as time goes on. As I look at the almost-empty month of March 2019, I wonder what God's calendar for me looks like. What does the Lord have in mind for me next March?

Date of birth, please?
Speaking of which, the other day I went for a routine checkup at the doctor's. When I stepped up to the desk the receptionist greeted me with a big smile and then asked "Father, what's your date of birth?" So I told her. As she typed in the numbers, I asked her "Do you want my expiration date, too?" Her fingers froze for a moment as she looked up at me and gasped in a scolding voice, "What an awful question!"

Heck, I didn't think it was such a terrible thought. I mean, it's not as if I don't have an expiration date, right? I suppose that doctors don't like talking about their patients' expiration dates. Or, maybe the problem is that I don't know the date when I'm due to expire? Is it so close that it could be scheduled on my 24-month pocket calendar?

This morning I started to look at tomorrow's Gospel passage, for the 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time. In the third sentence Jesus tells his disciples that "the Son of Man is to be handed over to men, and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise" (Mk 9:31).

When I looked at the passage in the original Greek (thank God for my Kindle!) I was surprised to see that "be handed over" is not in the future but in the present tense: The Son of man is being handed over. Hmm. Although the other two verbs are in the future ("they will kill him," "He will rise"), I was still fascinated by the use of the present tense. Was this some quirky trick of Greek grammar?

As I look at the passage now, though, I realize that Jesus is probably referring to the plot that is presently being woven against him: In a sense he is already being handed over. In any case, this mixing of present and future tenses makes for an interesting contrast with my reflections about my new calendar with my hand-written plans and its mostly-empty pages waiting to be filled in in the future.

What do I want those future months to be like? Don't I want them to be filled with love, generosity, gentleness and joy? If so, should I think of those in the future tense, or, taking my hint from Jesus in the gospel, maybe I should think of all these as already happening: March 2019 is already being filled with love, generosity, gentleness and joy? That would mean that I have to start today, in the present tense.


One big step in that direction would be this: I can imagine that every person has their "expiration date" showing on their forehead, and imagine further that their expiration date is today. How kind and considerate I would be to each of them! How caring and encouraging! Well, I don't need their expiration dates, I can just start to  treat everyone like that anyway, starting now. If I live that way, then March 2019 is already being filled with love, generosity, gentleness and joy. Which, I imagine, corresponds well with God's own plan.

It's a good idea to approach this plan with a certain amount of urgency; who knows, my own expiration date may come before next March.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

FACING THE CROSS

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I'm not usually conscious of anniversaries, but one that I always remember with a smile is September 14, the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. On that date 24 years ago I landed in Paris to begin an 8-month sabbatical that would take me through 15 countries, and would (not surprisingly) change me forever. I hope that this claim doesn't seem too exaggerated to you, because it is absolutely true. 


Over the years I've become more and more aware of how the Lord took care of me over those months: I never got sick, never got robbed, never had any injuries or accidents, but instead enjoyed new experiences each day. And so, the feast of the Holy Cross is always a time for special thanks to God for the gift of that sabbatical. That's why September 14 is such a happy anniversary, and this year was no different. -- But it was.  

Last night, however, the evening of Sept 14, I found myself, with most of my Benedictine brothers, in the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, attending a "Service of Prayer, Remembrance and Hope," recognizing the horrors of sexual abuse by our clergy. I thought the program was just right, a simple, somber mixture of the three elements promised in the title of the service: Prayer, Remembrance and Hope.


The "Prayer" part was humble, honest, punctuated with lots of silence and the singing of simple music.

The "Remembrance" part was difficult, especially when an adult got up and gave an impassioned
A marble angel blushing
account of being sexually molested over and over again by the parish priest, a close friend of his very religious family. He stood in the marble sanctuary of the cathedral, beneath the beautiful Gothic arches, and recounted in tearful detail the horrors he lived through for three years, starting at age twelve. Who would ever have thought that someone would ever be invited to stand in that holy place and speak about such vile things? But he was speaking out, telling truths that none of us wants to hear but which need to be admitted (finally) and remembered. The reality of the suffering was admitted: the speaker referred to two priests by name, and Cardinal Tobin referred specifically to Cardinal McCarrick. 

The "Hope" element was, I thought, introduced very well by Cardinal Tobin, who spoke of the cross as the source of our hope. He spoke of the suffering caused to the victims and to faithful people who have been scandalized by the revelations, and said that healing can ultimately be found only in the shadow of the Cross, the epitome of mysterious, innocent suffering.

The orations and petitions had a penitential flavor, and were mostly for the victims of abuse, and for people whose faith has been shaken by these awful revelations (including the official cover-ups and denials by our hierarchy).

This service, which began and ended in sorrowful silence, put a different slant on my usual anniversary meditations: As I always celebrate that God watched over me so carefully and lovingly during my sabbatical journey, this year I was reminded that this same God watches carefully and lovingly over all of his children and over his church, especially during times of suffering, when we are sharing in a special and mysterious way in the passion of Christ on the Cross.

I wonder what next year's anniversary will feel like?


Saturday, September 8, 2018

ANOTHER TEST OF FAITH

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Susan Stugaitis M.D., Ph.D.
I just learned the other day of the recent death of a former student from St. Vincent Academy, the girls' school where I taught for the year while St. Benedict's Prep was closed.  I remember Sue Stugaitis,a junior the year I was there, as one of those standout people that come along only rarely. She was a brilliant student and an all-around good person who attracted others by her upbeat personality.

I knew that she'd gone on to become a doctor, and her obituary notice filled me in on just what she'd been up to the past 45 years. The article included the following: : "She entered the medical scientist training program at New York University and completed her M.D. and Ph.D. degrees in 1992. From there, Susan relocated to Cleveland Heights and went on to a dedicated practice in neuropathology at the Cleveland Clinic for 17 years."





Now comes an ironic twist to the story of this brilliant research physician who had spent her professional life studying various brain diseases, including glioblastoma. In 2014 she herself began experiencing neurological symptoms, and eventually had a brain scan done there at the Cleveland Clinic.  


It turned out that there were only two specialists at Cleveland Clinic who were expert enough to read this particular kind of scan -- and one of them was Dr. Susan Stugaitis.  Can you imagine having to read your own brain scan, and seeing with your practiced eye, on the screen in front of you, the familiar image of a fatal glioblastoma?


Judging from the obituary, she made good use of the three or four years she had left, which is what you would have expected from Sue, even if you only knew her as a junior in high school.


At Vigils this morning I was thinking about her and the cruel ironic turn her life story took at the end. We happened to be celebrating today's feast of the Birth of the Virgin Mary. The reading and antiphons, the psalms and prayers stressed the idea of God's loving plan. The Lord foresaw the birth of the Savior, and so planned ahead of time "to prepare a worthy dwelling place for his Son" in the immaculate virgin.


Today's feast is based in the belief that God, in some mysterious way, is the Lord of History, and makes all things work unto good. We believe that beneath all of the suffering and death, the trauma and tragedy, the glioblastomas and the grief, runs the story of God's unending and infinite love for us.


The fact that the plot of the story is so often way beyond our ability to comprehend in this vale of tears is the reason that the Church gives us Mary as a model of someone who was able to trust the Lord and submit herself to God's mysterious will. Think of the different prayers to our Lady that  refer to sorrow and tears and the hour of our death.
I came away from Morning Prayer encouraged and comforted, by the prayers of Mary I'm sure, in my grief over the ironic death of Sue, a brilliant, loving woman who had devoted her life to fighting brain disease.


Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

PRAYING IN PAIN

I went down to church to pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament early this morning; I arrived late because my lower back had been hurting badly all night. As I sat down gingerly, the pain in my lumbar spine promised to make this one of those "going through the motions" prayer sessions. But the Lord and St. Paul had different plans.

I mechanically looked up the first reading for today's mass, 1 Cor. 1:26-31, and read the following verses:

Not many of you were wise by human standards,
not many were powerful,
not many were of noble birth.
Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, ...
so that no human being might boast before God.
It is due to him that you are in Christ Jesus,
who became for us wisdom from God, ...
Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord.

Then I saw this footnote for the final verse: "'Boasting about oneself' is a Pauline expression for the radical sin, the claim to autonomy on the part of a creature, the illusion that we live and are saved by our own resources. 'Boasting in the Lord,' on the other hand, is the acknowledgement that we live only from God and for God."

Hunched over in my chair at the time, I was very receptive to the contrast between "the illusion that we live and are saved by our own resources" and the acknowledgement that "we live only from God and for God." The point was being driven home to me in a painful way through the piercing pain in my spine: "my" prayer is not ultimately my own, but is from the Holy Spirit who prays in me.

After the earthquake
I'd like to think that if my back would stop hurting, my prayer would be more peaceful and focused and more worthwhile. But Paul's instruction this morning suggests a much more sensible possibility: That having to pray from a position of pain was reminding me that I was praying as one of the "poor" and "weak" who were chosen by God. I was praying with all the sick and suffering around the world lying in hospitals, starving in bombed-out cities, living in fractured families, struggling in the grip of addiction. None of these brothers and sisters were suffering with "the illusion that we live and are saved by our own resources," and my back pain, while nothing compared to their suffering, was helping me to join them in prayer that is humble, not my own but a gift of Christ in whom we all live and move and have our being.

I sat down intending to just go through the motions of praying this morning. That was my plan. It was, apparently, not the one the Lord had in mind for me.




Sunday, August 26, 2018

PRAYING FROM THE DEPTHS

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I

I suppose I should start with a follow-up report about Last Sunday's "Monkfest." In two words, it was a huge success. It was a cloudy day, but the clouds served to keep the temperature cool, and they didn't dump any rain on our picnic. So, the Lord answered my prayers!


ON A SADDER NOTE

I was away for the past few days enjoying visits with friends and relatives. Unfortunately a recurring theme on radio and t.v. and in the news paper was the terrible business of allegations against Catholic priests and even a cardinal. What is one to think? Or feel? It's such a tragedy for the victims and for the People of God, and for those who look to the Catholic Church for moral guidance. I certainly do not want to offer any further comment at the moment. But I'll tell you what I prayed about early this morning.

I was sitting in church as usual feeling deeply sad and angry at the way the power of evil has insinuated itself into our Church. I felt like the Psalmist in Psalm 79 who scolds the Lord for allowing the pagans to destroy Jerusalem and desecrate its temple. Here are some verses of his complaint:


O God, the nations have invaded your inheritance;
they have defiled your holy temple;
they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.
They have left the corpses of your servants
as food for the birds of the sky,
the flesh of those devoted to you for the beasts of the earth.
...
We have become the reproach of our neighbors,
the scorn and derision of those around us.

I went to this psalm to see how the rest of the lament goes. Here's some of what I found:

Let your compassion move quickly ahead of us,
for we have been brought very low.
Help us, God our savior,
on account of the glory of your name.
Deliver us, pardon our sins
for your name’s sake.
Why should the nations say,
“Where is their God?”
...
Then we, your people, the sheep of your pasture,
will give thanks to you forever;
from generation to generation
we will recount your praise. (Psalm 79 passim)


So, I sat with those inspired words, identifying with the powerful feelings of the psalmist. I especially prayed with the words, "Let your compassion move quickly ahead of us, for we have been brought very low." I "stretched myself out" in that prayer, asking for the Lord's mercy to "move quickly ahead of us."

May his mercy indeed move quickly ahead of us to heal and encourage the victims, to strengthen and support all whose faith is being shaken at this terrible time, and people like me who are grieving.