Saturday, May 12, 2012




Friday May 11. This morning I opened an email that told me that a close friend of almost 40 years had just died. I first met Irene when she was a young postulant in the Benedictine monastery of St. Walburga in Elizabeth. After she left the monastery she made private vows to her bishop and lived a life of self-giving and frugality.

The Ring of Kerry
We stayed in contact, trading letters and phone calls and a visit once or twice a year. Her health became a serious issue. She was one of those people who seemed to attract ill fortune (a catastrophic auto accident while stopped at a red light, for example, followed by botched medical care). But she managed to keep her trust in the Lord. A couple of years ago she moved from Long Island to Colorado, but she called me every week on the phone for a chat. More than one idea from those conversations wound up in a book I was working on at the time, or on this blog. She loved to reminisce about a trip she once made to her beloved Ireland and would willingly do an impassioned monologue about any given site in the Emerald Isle.

Not long ago she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and she quickly put her affairs in order and determined to enjoy whatever days were left her. It turned out that she didn’t have long to wait. The fact that she knew she was dying and that she was ready and willing to go is certainly some consolation. But it’s still hard to lose a good friend after all those years.

I kept thinking about her all day. Then this afternoon I looked at the Gospel to prepare my homily for today’s 5:00 mass. The passage was from John 15, an excerpt from one of those long discourses of Jesus at last supper.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another (Jn 15:12-17).

 The word “friend” caught my eye, of course, so I went back and reread Jesus’ words in which he tells his disciples that they are “no longer slaves,” who are dependent on the whim of their master, but rather they are “friends.” Through no effort of their own they have been chosen (“You did not choose me but I chose you”) and have been drawn into a new relationship: they are philoi, friends. The Greek philos is an adjective used as a noun. The stuffy language of the Greek-English lexicon says that the word means “beloved, dear.” As a noun it is used of “equal, intimate associates.” So Jesus is telling his disciples that they are his “equal, intimate associates.” These words are, of course, meant for you and me as well: we are equal, intimate associates of One who loves us without condition or limit, one who calls us “friends.”


 The notion of sin takes on a whole new feeling in light of this passage. A slave who sins against his or her master will perhaps feel bad because he or she is afraid of being punished. But if the master doesn’t catch the slave breaking the rules, then there’s nothing to be sorry about, no felt need to repent or make it up to the master. But what if you look at sin as an offense that hurts a friend? When you hurt a friend, the reason you’re sorry, it seems to me, is not that you got caught or that you’re afraid of being punished. You’re sorry because you let your friend down, because you hurt someone you’re close to, perhaps even lost their trust. That’s why the church changed the name (and the concept) of “Penance” or “Confession” to “The Sacrament of Reconciliation.” After one friend has offended the other, there is a need for forgiveness, for “reconciliation.” I don’t think that slaves use this vocabulary.


The implications of being a “friend” of Jesus fill the pages of the New Testament. Here’s just one. In the passage above, Jesus tells his disciples “You did not choose me, but I chose you to go forth and bear fruit.” Then he goes on to leave no doubt as to what that fruit is by following it immediately with “Love one another.” As I try to think of ways of honoring my friend Irene, Jesus has already given me the way to honor him: go forth and bear fruit, fruit that will last, by loving others. Actually, I guess that’s about the best way I could honor Irene too.


To lighten the mood I'd like to end with two biblical insights from two of my sophomore New Testament students. These two gems appeared on a test a couple of weeks ago.

1. “An important part of the Jewish obligation to love your neighbor was concern for the poor and windows.” A deep insight! Our culture encourages us to surround ourselves with mirrors so that we become egocentric and narcissistic. In the Kingdom however we surround ourselves not with mirrors but with windows that allow us to see clearly the rest of creation and the needs of our sisters and brothers. Yes, the Kingdom, like the Jewish Law, has a great concern for windows!

2. “One of the characteristics of Jesus’ Kingdom is that it has no boarders.” I agree with this student too! The Kingdom demands permanent, committed full-time residents; no boarders are invited into the Kingdom just to stay for a brief while when it’s convenient for them and then leave again when they feel like it.

Irish Road

.............May the road rise to meet you,
.............May the wind be always at your back.
.............May the sun shine warm upon your face,
............The rains fall soft upon your fields.
............And until we meet again,
............May God hold you in the palm of his hand.

.............................,,,,,,,.....Thank you, Irene!

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