Saturday, June 24, 2017

PETER MILLER'S TALE

Here’s a story to ponder. I heard it from a brother monk at supper last night. He then sent me the excerpt from The Light and the Glory by Peter Marshall and David Manuel. The setting is the American Revolutionary War.

A turncoat collaborator named Michael Wittman was captured, and at this trial it was proven that he had given the British invaluable assistance on numerous occasions. He was found guilty of spying and sentenced to death by hanging. On the evening before the execution, an old man with white hair asked to see Washington, giving his name as Peter Miller. He was ushered in without delay, for Miller had done a great many favors for the army. Now he had a favor to ask of Washington, who nodded agreeably.


“I’ve come to ask you to pardon Michael Wittman.”
Washington was taken aback. “Impossible! Wittman has done all in his power to betray us, even offering to join the British and help destroy us.” He shook his head. “In these times we cannot be lenient with traitors; and for that reason I cannot pardon your friend.”
“Friend! He’s no friend of mine. He is my bitterest enemy. He has persecuted me for years. He has even beaten me and spit in my face, knowing full well that I would not strike back. Michael Wittman is no friend of mine!”
Washington was puzzled. “And you still wish me to pardon him?”
“I do. I ask it of you as a personal favor.”
“Why?”
“I ask it because Jesus did as much for me.”

Washington turned away and walked into the next room. Soon he returned with a paper on which was written the pardon of Michael Wittman. “My dear friend,” he said, placing the paper in the old man’s hand, “I thank you for this.”  


Let me leave you with this short tale, and invite you to read it again and ask yourself if there are maybe a few Michael Wittmans in your life.


Sunday, June 18, 2017

BEING BREAD

JESUS THE BREAD OF LIFE 

The gospel reading for today's feast of Corpus Christi is taken from Chapter 6 of John’s gospel, the so-called “Bread of Life Chapter.” I just returned from vacation last night, and have not had time to write a brand new post, but the following is five years old, and I believe it still gives all of us something to think about.


Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.  I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’ The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever’  (John Ch. 6).

SLEEPING WITH BREAD 

There’s a little book entitled Sleeping with Bread by Dennis Linn et. al. The title comes from at story told at the beginning of the book:“During the bombing raids of WWII, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, 'Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.'” 

As I listened to the readings from the “Bread of Life Chapter” this week I kept seeing the image of those little war orphans sleeping peacefully in their beds, each holding on to a piece of bread. For those suffering children the bread meant much more than calories and carbohydrates. It was a promise, an encouragement. In the midst of a chaotic war-torn world, the bread was a reassuring, palpable presence, the gift of hope for tomorrow. When Christ says, “I am the bread of life,” isn’t he giving himself to us as a promise, an encouragement, a reassuring palpable presence, the gift of hope for tomorrow?

BEING BREAD

But there’s more to this “bread of life” business than Jesus’ giving himself to us in the Holy Eucharist. For one thing, remember that where the other three gospels have Jesus instituting the Eucharist at the Last Supper, the Gospel of John does not. Instead it tells how Jesus washed the feet of his disciples (Jn 13:3 ff.). The episode ends with Jesus commanding the apostles: "14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (Jn Ch. 13).
Jesus Washing Feet

The readings at this time of the liturgical year are full of such commands, commissions and sendings. The angelic messengers at the tomb tell the women, Go, tell the disciples…,” the disciples are commanded "Go into Galilee,"and the risen Lord appears to the disciples and gives them the commission to “Go forth into the whole world…” The first reading today (Friday) was the story of Saul’s conversion on the Road to Damascus; once again someone’s life is interrupted by a peremptory command from the Lord: "Stop what you’re doing and go do this for me." 

Combining the themes of the Bread of Life and of these various “sendings”, it's easy for us to imagine Jesus saying to us, his followers, “I am the bread of life, and now you have to go forth and be bread as well. In the midst of a chaotic materialistic world, be bread for one another, be a reassuring, palpable presence, be the gift of hope for tomorrow for your brothers and sisters.  I want you to be bread for one another."

I preached on this theme in the homily at today’s community mass. On the way to the sacristy after mass I passed a basket on a table in the gathering area in the back of church. A hand-lettered a sign on the basket is labeled simply “Food Pantry.” The basket was overflowing with canned goods and a big box of Special K. I smiled as I thought to myself, "Well, it’s not exactly bread, but some of our parishioners sure know a great way to be bread for the poor families in our neighborhood.”

As I continued toward the sacristy I started wondering who I'm supposed to be bread for in the next day or two. Hmm... Maybe it's you?

Saturday, June 10, 2017

LOVE IN NINEVEH

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Ancient Nineveh
The past week or more, the daily mass readings took us through the book of Tobit, a biblical novella about how God took care of certain of his exiled children living in Assyria. Tobit and his son Tobias were Jewish exiles living in Nineveh, an ancient Assyrian city of Upper Mesopotamia, on the eastern bank of the Tigris River, the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. It was the largest city in the world for some fifty years until the year 612 BC when, after a bitter period of civil war in Assyria, it was sacked by a coalition of its former subject peoples, the Babylonians, Medes, Chaldeans, Persians, Scythians and Cimmerians.
Raphael guiding Tobias
Tobit, a pious Jew, had a hard time living as an exile in pagan Nineveh, and was persecuted for practicing certain acts of Jewish piety such as burying a murdered fellow Israelite. The mass lectionary ends the story today (Saturday) with part of  the “happily ever after” section.
But the novella goes on for two more chapters, until the death of Tobit in the very last lines of the book.
Much honoured, Tobit lived to the age of a hundred and seventeen years. Before he died he witnessed the ruin of Nineveh. He saw the Ninevites taken prisoner and deported to Media by Cyaxares king of Media. He blessed God for everything he inflicted on the Ninevites and Assyrians. Before his death he had the opportunity of rejoicing over the fate of Nineveh, and he blessed the Lord God for ever and ever. Amen. (Tobit 14:14-15)

 When I looked up “Nineveh” to find out where it’s located and whatever became of it, I found out that the city of Nineveh is now part of larger modern city in northern Iraq with a much more familiar name: Mosul. Yes, you heard correctly, Mosul!
Nineveh’s ruins are across the river from the center of modern Mosul, where the archeological remains suffered in the 2010s from the occupation of the area by ISIS. Iraqi forces recaptured the area six months ago, in January 2017.


Western Mosul  today
Presumably Tobit would have been be okay with the reports on the National Geographic website: Deliberate destruction of monuments by ISIS since the Islamic militants first seized Mosul in June 2014, a mosque dedicated to the prophet Jonah inside the walls of Nineveh destroyed by ISIS in July 2014, sculptures from the site damaged during ISIS' rampage through the Mosul museum in February 2015. The militants have also destroyed the city's main libraries, which contained centuries-old manuscripts.  
This morning in church, when I tried reflecting on the fate of Nineveh, I couldn’t get beyond the outrageous craziness, hatred and destruction. So I turned from Mosul to tomorrow’s feast, the Solemnity of the Holy Trinity. The mystery of the Trinity offered a beautiful contrast to the murderous insanity of the Mosul situation,
"The Trinity" -- Andrei Rublev
The mystery of the trinity assures us that God is not an isolated being existing in solitary sovereignty, infinitely beyond our human reach. If God is a Trinity of distinct persons, then God is relationship. God is Love. To make it sound more real, you can say that God is family. If that’s so, then you need to approach the mystery of the Holy Trinity with more than just your mind -- you need an open heart. To grasp more about the Trinity you have to be ready to receive God into your life, this God who is boundless, unconditional love.
God is family. All of us are family. In God’s eyes, all of his human creatures are family. Think of that the next time you’re thinking ill of someone, especially someone who hates you. No matter who that person is, you have to say to yourself, “I better be real careful because after all that person is family.” The mystery of the Holy Trinity has been buried temporarily beneath the rubble of Nineveh and Mosul.
If your God's love has boundaries around it and excludes certain people, then that is not the Triune God of the Christian faith, but a God with boundaries. A god with boundaries is obviously not much of a God, but rather an idol.
Our belief in the Trinity, in God as Family, challenges us to open our hearts in love to all our fellow human beings. Sure we may fall short of this, but we Christians need to hold onto that belief and try our best to live out its implications. That’s our job -- to spread the Good News that God is love, infinite, unconditional love.
Let us pray for the people of Mosul, all of whom are our brothers and sisters.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

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STAGE RAGE

During the month of May our students work full-time in courses of project-based learning (I’ve already written about our Freshman Backpacking course, for example). One groups of a dozen students worked with our drama director and three counselors from our Counselling Center to write and produce a psychodrama called “Stage Rage.” On Friday they performed their extraordinary play for all 600 of us. It consisted of a series of vignettes presenting various real-life struggles and sufferings of each of the actors. A kid with fine grades and a happy demeanor, with good athletic skills, acted out for us his horrid home situation -- I had no idea of what he goes through every single day. Another youngster found the courage to get up on the stage and walk us through the reasons why he almost never says a word all day long(!) This surprising feat of courage and honesty went on for over half an hour in front of a group of teenagers who were mute the whole time. They knew they were watching something rare and important. I’m sure I was not the only one asking myself, “How do they keep going day after day carrying those burdens?”



GRADUATION

Friday night I attended the eighth-grade graduation ceremony for St. Mary’s elementary school, held in the abbey church. I’d also been at the St. Benedict’s Prep graduation rehearsal earlier in the day -- our seniors graduatE tomorrow -- Pentecost Sunday. This ceremony was permeated with a sense of future, a  feeling of new beginnings, of “commencement,” of aspirations and dreams -- and of a little uneasiness about what the future will be like for these youngsters. The service included, appropriately enough, short scripture readings chosen by the graduates, a litany of intercessions, and opening and closing prayers. The point was clear: These kids and their dreams are in the Lord’s hands, and life ultimately not about making money or being popular, but about staying close to the Lord and imitating his self-giving love for ones brothers and sisters.


“FOLLOW ME!”

An expression that occurs in the gospel reading both yesterday and today is “Follow me.” The origin of the Greek word for “follow,” akoloutheo, is worth looking at. The prefix a- expresses “union, likeness,” and the word keleuthos means “a way;” so the verb has the idea of “going in the same way.”


In the New Testament, akoloutheo, “to follow,” is used of the disciples who decide to follow Jesus, to walk along the way with hIM. Jesus invites us, “Walk with me!” Guess how many times the word is used in the Gospels in the sense of “following Christ?” The answer is seventy-seven! The gospels are all about walking with Jesus, answering his call to follow him.

“ALL WERE FILLED WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT”

Tomorrow is the feast of Pentecost, when the church celebrates the giving of the gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples, transforming them from fearful, timid people into fearless preachers of the good news.

Pray that the Spirit will come down and transform the lives of those kids in “stage rage” into lives filled with peace, joy, and the ability to love unconditionally.

Pray that the Spirit will help each of us to follow Jesus more faithfully, so that we may “walk along with him” with the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit.

A BLESSED PENTECOST!

Saturday, May 27, 2017

WAITING AND WAITING

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There’s waiting, and then there’s waiting.
WAITING: BEFORE


“On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews…” (Jn 20:19).


Picture the twelve apostles on the first Easter Sunday evening, back in the upper room, hiding behind locked doors, terrified that the authorities were about to come and arrest them for being followers of Jesus. They stared anxiously at the door, sneaking glances at one another, expecting at any moment to hear the fateful knock that would mean arrest, torture and death. The hours passed, the atmosphere grew more and more tense, and everyone’s nerves were on edge. The suspense became unbearable.

That’s waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for the hammer to fall. It can numb you into inaction, immobilize you like a snake’s venom, blind you like a Los Angeles smog. It’s fear of some phantom-like disaster that may be lurking just around the corner.


But, that was not the only kind of waiting the disciples did in the New Testament. Consider these verses from Acts:


WAITING: AFTER

He presented himself alive to them by many proofs after he had suffered, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.While meeting with them, he enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for “the promise of the Father about which you have heard me speak; for John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the holy Spirit.  …. you will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” ….  Then they returned to Jerusalem …. (Acts 1:3-12 passim)
Picture the twelve apostles on the first Ascension Thursday evening, back in the same upper room, waiting. This time, however, they are not waiting in fear but in “joyful hope for the coming of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” They are praying together, and sharing their amazement at what they had just seen and heard. “Wait in the city …  In a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”


This is the “Can’t wait!” kind of waiting. It’s kids-on-Christmas-Eve kind of waiting.
JESUS IS THE DIFFERENCE


What made the disciples change so radically their way of waiting? How did they switch so completely from “waiting for the other shoe to drop” to an attitude of “Can’t wait?” What happened to them in between was this: They encountered the risen Christ.

In the first passage above, they didn’t know that the Lord had risen from the dead, and so the future was a threat. In the second passage, they have met the risen Jesus a couple of times, maybe more, and so the future was changed from a threat into a promise.


We can meet Jesus in prayer, in the sacraments, in the words of scripture, in the person of the people around us. The more often and the more deeply we encounter him, the more our own sense of the future can be transformed from a threat into a promise.

For eye has not seen, ear has not heard what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9).
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"Go and wait in Jerusalem for the gift of the Spirit"




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)