Monday, March 31, 2014

Selective Memory

Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás is probably not a name you know, but his words most of us have repeated. "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." And God commands the people of Israel, "Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm."(Dt. 5:15)

And yet, in the first reading today God tells us through the prophet Isaiah,

Lo, I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; The things of the past shall not be remembered or come to mind. Instead, there shall always be rejoicing and happiness

Which is it? Should we remember or should we forget? The simple answer is both. How could I love if I could not remember? Memory is the very foundation of relationship? We see this in the tragedy of Altzheimers, when our loved ones can no longer remember who we are. All learning requires memory.

And yet, we also know that memory can also lead to spiritual death. It can be the foundation for resentments, anger, vengeance.

The good news is that we all have selective memories. And the even better news is that we can choose which things we will remember. On the one hand, the more often we recall something, the more ingrained it becomes in our long term memory. On the other hand, any memory if not recalled on a regular basis is forgotten. True forgetting should not be confused with denial. In denial we continue to recall the painful event, but tell ourselves that we have let it go.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez articulated it best. La vida no es la que uno vivió, sino la que uno recuerda, y cómo la recuerda para contarla. Life is not the one you have lived, but the one you remember, and how you remember to retell it.

Have you had a good life or a bad one? What do you choose to focus on? What events do you select when telling your story? How do you interpret the events? All of these are choices that we make.

Humans have very limited memory capacity. Why should we waste what little we have on things that do not add to our lives? In this Lenten season let us make better use of our memory and Choose life.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Paschal Candle

Opening note: During Lent and Easter we hear the adjective paschal a lot, and just presume that everyone knows what it means. It refers to things associated with Easter, and comes from the same root as passover. In Spanish it is a bit simpler. The noun of for Easter is Pascua and adjective is pascual. Our word Easter is a reference to the East and sunrise as a symbol of ressurection.

On the night before Easter we gather in the dark, we light a fire, and from the fire each year we light a new candle. This Paschal Candle is inscribed with  a cross, with five nails representing the wounds of Christ, the year, and the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha (Α) and omega (Ω). Christ is the light of the world. Christ is the beginning and the end. The candle will remain lit throughout the 50 days of Easter, and will be used when we mark the beginning and the end of a Christians earthly life (baptisms and funerals).

The readings today are all about light and darkness, blindness and sight.  In the gospel, the man born blind is the only one who sees who Jesus really is. The disciples are still just calling him "Rabbi."But there are other blindnesses. The very opening of the gospel with the debate over why he is blind, shows the ignorance of the people.

We should not be afraid of the word ignorant. It simply means lack of knowledge. There are many things of which i am ignorant. The fool is the person who will not say "I am ignorant."

In the opening of the gospel we see the ignorance of the time. Was it his sin or his parents?  The first level is that they think the blindness is a bad thing, a punishment for sin.  They can't even imagine that physical blindness could be a gift from God, and part of a larger plan. I can understand this because when I was young and foolish I saw my handicap as a bad thing and more than once asked, "Why me, God?"

The other error of course is implied question of reincarnation, when they ask was it his sin?  Christianity has from its beginnings as we see here rejected any kind of reincarnation. We pass through this earthly life but one time. Another reason why we believe that it is critical for us to see each day as a gift. We shall not pass this way again.

St. Paul gives the people of Ephesus and us one very simple command:

Live as children of light

And he explains why it is so important:

for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth.

The word for righteousness can also be translated equity or justice. 

For those who have been baptized we have already received the light. We have know excuse. If we walk in darkness or blindness it is by choice.  The good, the equitable, the truth are usually quite readily apparent if we open our hearts, if we will but listen to our conscience, if we think before we act, and if we pray.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Believe in yourself

Every era has errors. One of the great ones of our time is the notion that we should teach children to "believe in themselves."We come into this world turned in on ourselves. Think about the fetal position. Where are you looking? And even once we are born all five of our senses are not functioning fully. It is only slowly over time that our senses come online and we are able to engage the world. And an even longer time before we are able to turn away from ourselves and focus on the needs of others.

In the Gospel today Jesus addresses this parable to those who trust in themselves for righteousness. There really two ways in which we can all fall into self-righteousness.

The first is to believe that I can somehow earn my way into heaven. While it is true that we must cooperate with God's grace, it is the grace that saves us.

The more insidious form of self-righteousness is our tendency to see ourselves as better than someone else. We would never want to acknowledge it but it is true.

There are some people who are in supervisory positions in life. Parents for example have not only right but a duty to supervise their children. At work we may have people for whom we must serve as supervisors and are expected to provide guidance. Even there, the guidance must be done with love, acknowledging the good at least as often as you point out the bad. We are to critique, not criticize.

In the rest of life, every time we critique someone else, hidden inside that critique is a drop of self-righteousness. On some level we are saying I could do it better, I would do it better, I am better.

Hidden inside the center of every criticism of someone else is a bit of a superiority complex. We hate to admit this.

Instead of teaching our children to believe in themselves we Christians reserve the phrase "believe in" for God. If we are truly Christian we cannot be self-righteous because we know that our very existence from moment to moment is a gift from God. Every capacity that I have comes from God. And if I my life correctly everything that I do is a collaboration with God.

Tomorrow we begin the fourth week of Lent (the pink Sunday). Yes I know it's officially called Rose; it's still pink. It is the reminder that we are more than halfway through the season of Lent. This fourth week of Lent let us pay attention and catch ourselves in those moments when we are even thinking a criticism of someone else and acknowledge those as the self-righteous moments that they are, and shut them down.

This may leave some of us with nothing to say, but silence is golden.

Believe only in God. Know that every breath is a gift. And do not waste a single one on petty self-righteousness.

Thursday, March 27, 2014


If someone asked if you had an aversion to God you would probably be horrified at the notion. "Of course not" would be your response.

Today the prophet Jeremiah spoke of people who "turned their backs, not their faces, to me." We are all in constant motion. We try to keep our faces turned toward God, but like a ship in the ocean unless we are constantly making corrections we can slow end up turned the wrong direction, and even 180° off course.

In Latin the word to turn toward is conversion. The opposite, the word that means to turn away is aversion. If you are reading this blog you are probably not a person who has turned completely away, but all of us have a tendency to avert our eyes from those parts of gospel that are most uncomfortable for us. For some is it the simplicity of life, and care for the poor. For some it is the sexual morality. For some it is the keeping of Sabbath or some of the sacraments.

Today Jeremiah challenges us to be brutally honest in examining our hearts and acknowledge the parts of the gospel to which we have an aversion. Are there some areas where our neck has become so stiff we can't hardly turn it, from our way to God's way?

Like a stiff neck it may take time to work out the stiffness, and mobilizing a stiff neck can be painful. But it comes down to a simple fact, there are only two ways we can be moving, conversion or aversion. We are never standing still. We are always doing one or the other.

In this third week of Lent may we be constantly in conversion, making the constant corrections needed to keep our face turned toward God.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

No News

There are many areas of theology where we all still have a great deal to learn: scripture, christology ( the study of Jesus Christ), ecclesiology (the study of the Church), Christian anthropology (the study of us, people). But the one area where most adults are not lacking in knowledge is moral theology. God has built into us a sense of the natural law, a conscience, and for most ordinary situations we know right from wrong. Ignorance is not the problem.

Our greatest moral obstacle is our capacity to rationalize. We know something is wrong. We want it anyway. So our minds set about to construct a rationale by which our situation is an exception to the rule.

Today's first reading deals with one of the tools we use in rationalization, forgetfulness.

Moses having rescued the people from slavery and given them the law warns them:

Be earnestly on your guard not to forget

As the pastor of a Church dedicated to St. Patrick, I have found myself over the last few years reading more and more about the Irish Potato Famine and the 19th century immigration to the US. The more I read the more perplexed I am when I hear anyone of Irish decent talk disparagingly about the Hispanic immigrants of today. And when reminded of how their ancestors were treated, the response is often "But that was different..." followed by a rationalization of why their lack of charity and love for neighbor is somehow justifiable.

When we forget, particularly the painful parts of our own history,we lose one of the keys to compassion. If you can remember how you felt when you were the subject of gossip, you are less likely to gossip about others. Remember how you felt when you were made fun of, and you will not make fun of others.

Throughout the Old Testament it was precisely when the people of Israel forgot how they had been mistreated and how God had rescued them that they fell away. The role of the prophets was to remind them, to call them back.

Are their things that we have conveniently forgotten that we need to remember this Lenten season?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The real beginning

Most people when they use the word incarnation, I would dare say they think of Christmas. But actually today is the day that the church celebrates the moment, nine months before Christmas, when the child Jesus began to form in the womb of his mother.

Actually it was a three step process,as we understand it.
The annunciation by the angel.
The acceptance of the invitation by Mary.
The overshadowing by the Holy Spirit, and entrance of the Son into Mary.

God who exists outside time and space, beyond the observable universe, for the first time in history, with the permission of Mary, freely chooses to enter our world. God no longer watches our life as an observer. God will now experience human life from the very first moment of conception.

Today is a time to celebrate the miracle that is human life. As day by day, cells multiply, and differentiate, and those 23 pairs of chromosomes, together with their soul, begin to shape the unique person.

I think back on every baby who came to our house as a foster child. No two were alike. There is no such thing as normal. We gave each the same love and care and yet from before they could crawl, their individual personalities would emerge.

We love to try and reduce the human being, even our universe to what we can observe and measure. And I suppose if someone wanted to believe that if we can measure it it doesn't exist, then they have the right. But as for me I have only to hold a baby and I know that there is so much more than we can ever understand.

A special prayer for my adoptive parents, John and Marcia Ball. They saw what the doctors of the time could not see, and believed in the impossible.

And a prayer for my biological parents whoever and wherever they are. I know that I was an "unwanted pregnancy" to a 16 year old girl in 1960, but she had the courage give birth to me then give me up for adoption.

For every woman who today will find out that she is pregnant, for every man who will find out that he is a father, may they understand the miracle that they have received.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Magic to Do

Today's first reading , the cure of Naaman by the prophet Elisha, seems to simple. Even though he as what we would call a Syrian, a servant convinces him to go to Israel to be cured of his leprosy. Here it may be worth noting that in biblical times, the fear of leprosy was so great any skin disease from eczema to actual leprosy (hanson's disease) could get you declared a leper.

Regardless of the condition, he is told by Elisha to go and wash in the river 7 (the perfect number that represented God) times. If his servants hadn't stopped him he would have gone home uncured for the dumbest reason in the world. It was too easy.

He wanted spectacle. He wanted the prophet to do something, or to require him to do something extraordinary.

Are we different today? How many people don't believe in our sacraments because they are too simple? Even Harry Potter casts his spells in Latin. We took down the altar rail, we changed the language of mass to the language of the people, we simplified the costumes, we let lay people touch the host. And like Naaman, people drifted away. Even the sacrament of reconciliation seems too simple. The penances priests give aren't extraordinary.

People are hungry for the transcendent, the supernatural. Just turn on your television. How many TV shows are there about the subject? We have latest additions of Resurrection and Believe, along side the older Supernatural, Vampire Diaries,etc. etc.,etc.

If only we could get the chalice to bubble or the host to glow. If we could get a little electricity to arc when we say the prayer of absolution. There are those who think that if we would just go back to chanting in Latin, more incense, and priests in more costumes, churches would fill up.

Today's first reading reminds us that real faith is not based on that. Did Jesus establish a Church and a priesthood? Yes. Are there particular words and actions by which we invoked the Holy Spirit? Yes. Elisha did after all require him to do something.

But our faith presents the extraordinary in the most ordinary ways. Bread, wine, water, oil, the essentials for sacraments are simple, ordinary every day objects.

Do we have the faith that allows us to see the extraordinary in the ordinary? Can we, in this Lenten season, open our hearts to accept that the words of absolution are enough, the words of consecration are enough, the simple words of baptism are enough, to produce nothing less than a miracle right in front of our eyes. Can we believe in something we cannot see?

It's ok to doubt. Naaman probably didn't really expect anything. He may have just bathed in the river because he wanted to eg this servants to quit nagging him. But he did it. He took the leap of faith.

Look around and see the presence of God in the little things. If you haven't been to church in a while, go. If you haven't been to confession, go. Just do it. Take the leap of faith. There may be no magic, but there will be grace.

Saturday, March 22, 2014


On Saturday of the second week of Lent, we hear the story of the prodigal son. It is worth noting that before the son received absolution he did have make his confession and act of contrition. Sitting on the side of the road praying to God was not enough.

I say that because there are still those who forget that there has never been a time in the history of Christianity when confession wasn't required. Until about the 7th century you had to do it in front of everybody, including the priest. But it would be a myth to believe that confession was something " the Catholic Church made up."

If we are all one body, as Saint Paul tells us, then when I sin, it is not just against God. It is also against the whole body. At the center of the Christian faith is this concept of inter-connectedness. It's why I have to go to church. It's why I have to go to confession. It's why the Eucharist (communion) is the source and summit of our lives. Simply put there is no such thing as individual Christian.

Am I my brother's keeper? Yes.

Once you are baptized into the body of Christ, it cannot be undone. You are a member of the Church and everything you do, effects the entire body. When one of us does good it lifts up the whole church. When one of us sins, it brings down the whole church.

It is not good for the man to be alone is not just about marriage. It is a statement about human nature. We are not built to function in isolation.

Yes it is hard to go to confession. But isn't anything really worth doing difficult.

Yes, the prodigal son received forgiveness but only after contrition and confession.

Friday, March 21, 2014


Both readings today deal with the concept of justice, but from different angles.

In the first reading we have Joseph and his brothers who are jealous because they somehow feel that they have been treated unfairly. The have confused the truth that all people are of equal dignity with a childish notion that equality means everybody gets the same size piece of cake.

In the gospel we get the tenants who feel no obligation to give to the owner of the vineyard what he is due, and take it out first on the servants then on the son.

Both the brothers in the first story and the tenants in the gospel are angered because they erroneously believe that they have been wronged. They have somehow been cheated.

In the last few weeks I have been struck by three seemingly senseless deaths: the young man from ODU who grew up as an altar boy in my church, followed by the sudden death of my assistant's father, followed by the death of a local teenager who had just finished a marathon in Virginia Beach. Having had my big brother pass away suddenly when I was 12 I know the pain.

We tend in those moment to see it as unfair. We get angry because we feel like they (and we) were somehow cheated. We say things like, "His life was cut short." But the simple fact is none of that is true.

First because we believe in the possibility of eternal life that God offers to all.

Second, and more to the point, we cannot be cheated or our lives cut short because none of us is promised even one day. Justice is giving a person what they are due. None of us is entitled  to any particular number of years on this earth.

When I was born, no one promised me 80 years on earth. In my case there was a real question as to whether I would survive even a day. To say someone's life was cut short is to presume that it was supposed to last a particular length of time. When my brother died at 17 in a freak car accident. It wasn't "God's will." It was an entire constellation of factors that led to the accident, some were human choices.

However and whenever death comes it is painful, devastating for loved ones but it is never unfair.

This blog entry might be the last thing I ever do. I could get up from this computer, have a heart attack and my earthly life be over.  My bother's death at 17 was as fair as my mother's death at 77.

We are not promised, nor do we have a right to even one day on earth. Every day is a gift. Each morning when we wake up we should thank God for that gift. We should use the gift wisely, guard it like it was pure gold. And if we make it to the end of the day, thank God again. Every conversation with a loved one, we should presume that it is the last one. The only time that any of us have for certain is this moment. How many will we waste on stupid things like anger and envy.

During Lend we often give away things. We make donations. The most precious thing we can give away during Lent is time. Giving our time, our undivided attention to others can be worth more than all the monetary donations in the world.

How will you spend this day, this gift.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

True Love

At first glimpse, the prophet Jeremiah seems at least heartless if not just plain cynical.

Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings

In fact what the prophet is really showing us is the path to true love. If we, as he writes,"seek our strength in flesh",  then we will seek out relationships that can be the source of that strength. The most overt form of this most of us have experienced-- the person who only calls when they need something.

The prophet Jeremiah is not saying we shouldn't trust people or that if we trust people we are always going to be disappointed. What is translated here as "trust in" might better be phrased as "be dependent on."  As people of faith we should be dependent on God, find our strength in God alone.

When we depend only on God then we are free to truly love. We can love others not for what we get from the relationship, but love them just for who they are. Love can then be not about me getting something, but me giving. When we truly love we are focused on giving something of ourselves to another. if they love us, they in turn give something of themselves to us. In real love it is free gift. We don't demand it. We have no right to expect it.

How many people miss out on the joy of life because they mistakenly believe that there is some human relationship that they NEED that they don't have. If they could just find the right person, they think, then they would be happy. This is what Jeremiah is warning us away from.  The only relationship I truly need is God. My very life, my very existence comes from God. Without God I do not have life.

Every human relationship should be seen as pure gift, an opportunity to share what I have received from God with someone else, an opportunity to love.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Stepping up to Fatherhood

Today the Church celebrates the Solemnity of St. Joseph, Spouse of Mary. We of course we do not refer to him as Jesus's Father, because that is the first person of the Trinity, God the Father. Despite the fact that he knew he was not the biological father, he raised Jesus as his son. Many countries including Italy, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Bolivia, Honduras, Croatia, and parts of Switzerland celebrate Father's Day today.

While there may be some who take offense, it is a simple statement of fact that children particularly boys need fathers and women cannot be fathers. This is in no way an indictment of single mothers, but a call on this St. Joseph's Day for all men, especially men of faith to step up in imitation of St. Joseph be a model and father figure to the many boys who are struggling to understand what it means to be a man.  They need someone who can not only talk to them but someone who can show them by example. Someone who shares their experience.

In all of the discussion of single mothers, we rarely hear talk about the deadbeat dads. Men who biologically father children and walk away.  We want to blame women for having babies our of wedlock as if they did it on their own.

Every man can in some way be a father.  Today on this Solemnity of St. Joseph it is a call of all men to ask how they might be able to better imitate Joseph. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Humble-the verb

Most of us do not mind the adjective. As a matter of fact most of us would like to think of ourselves as humble, and if not humble we would at least like to think we are not the opposite. The readings today do not however use the adjective; they use the verb.

Very simply we have two options we can either humble ourselves or we can be humbled. Speaking from personal experience, when God has to humble you, it is not a pleasant experience. It is much simpler if we humble ourselves.

It isn't complicated, although it is not easy. True humility is how bad you are. It's not about you at all. To humble ourselves means to but others ahead of ourselves. In a conversation, it is listening rather than talking. When our mind wanders to our aches and pains, it is turning our minds to someone else who is suffering more. Not a generic someone but an actual person. In prayer, it is letting God lead us, instead of telling God what we need, as if he did not know.

The humble person does not cast their eyes down they cast them out, and up; out toward others and up toward heaven.

Humble-the verb

Most of us do not mind the adjective. As a matter of fact most of us would like to think of ourselves as humble, and if not humble we would at least like to think we are not the opposite. The readings today do not however use the adjective; they use the verb.

Very simply we have two options we can either humble ourselves or we can be humbled. Speaking from personal experience, when God has to humble you, it is not a pleasant experience. It is much simpler if we humble ourselves.

It isn't complicated, although it is not easy. True humility is how bad you are. It's not about you at all. To humble ourselves means to but others ahead of ourselves. In a conversation, it is listening rather than talking. When our mind wanders to our aches and pains, it is turning our minds to someone else who is suffering more. Not a generic someone but an actual person. In prayer, it is letting God lead us, instead of telling God what we need, as if he did not know.

The humble person does not cast their eyes down they cast them out, and up; out toward others and up toward heaven.

Monday, March 17, 2014

St Patrick's Day

As the pastor of St. Patrick's I have to step back for a moment from the daily Lenten readings and reflect on St. Patrick's day. In order to understand it we have to go back to the decade before the founding of my parish. As one Catholic historian writes:

Suddenly, in the mid-1840s, the size and nature of Irish immigration changed drastically. The potato blight which destroyed the staple of the Irish diet produced famine. Hundreds of thousands of peasants were driven from their cottages and forced to emigrate -- most often to North America. Unlike the earlier migration, these people had no skills, no previous experience in adapting to a new country. They also had no money, few clothes, and very little hope. Most had no education. Further, despite a fierce loyalty to the Catholic Church, most had had little formal religious training.

It is hard for us today to imagine that even well known magazines like Harpers would regularly run horrible cartoons of "Bridget and Patrick" that would make Amos and Andy look racially sensitive.The term "Biddie" comes from Bridget. And I never heard anyone called "an old Biddie" as a compliment.

The Chicago Post wrote, "The Irish fill our prisons, our poor houses...Scratch a convict or a pauper, and the chances are that you tickle the skin of an Irish Catholic. Putting them on a boat and sending them home would end crime in this country"

A century and a half later the whole country celebrates St. Patrick's Day. But how do we celebrate? When you say St. Patrick's Day do we think of the former slave who became a missionary? Do we think of the man who dedicated his life to spreading the faith?

For most Americans they think about getting drunk. Green beer, leprechauns, and pots of gold are the images. The shamrock is the only remnant of the actual saint left. Cities have to increase police patrols and erect sobriety check points all weekend.

I used to think that St. Nicholas was the most maligned saint. He may have been turned into a cartoon character with a sleigh and reindeer , but at least he is associated with something more than corned beef, cabbage, and getting drunk. How many DUI (DWI)'s will be racked up around St. Patrick's Day? How many will be injured or killed in an accident involving a drunk driver?

And the worst part of it all is that the people keeping the stereotype alive are the Irish-Americans themselves. The first generation of immigrants fought to establish themselves as something more than a band of brawling drunkards. Today some Irish Americans will act as if getting drunk is something to be proud of, and part of what it means to be Irish.

Blessed Pope John Paul II launched the New Evangelization, a call for us to reclaim the faith among all those who are baptized Catholics. It is time for us, Irish Catholics, and all those who belong to a St. Patrick's, St. Bridget's or any Irish Catholic Church to take back our Saint.

I'm not saying we should get rid of the parties, but can we rehabilitate the name, so that the first thing people think of us not just getting drunk? Perhaps it's time for us to look for ways: subtle and not so subtle to re-inject the faith those first immigrants suffered to defend back into the celebration, a day to be as proud of being Catholic as we are of being Irish.

Today as St. Patrick looks down from his place in heaven, will he be proud or ashamed of what his name represents?

Saturday, March 15, 2014


Does the Bible teach hate? I hope we all know that the answer is no. Even the much maligned and misunderstood Old Testament does not teach hate. While the Jews are taught in the Law that they are the chosen people, they are also taught to never forget that they were once strangers in a foreign land. And so they are to treat the foreigner as they would have wanted to be treated.

But in today's gospel Jesus says,

You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.

This is one more example of what is not meant to be taken literally. It is hyperbole. What Jesus witnessed was that this was what people were being unofficially taught. This was the way people behaved.

Are we that different? After all, as Christians we know the words:

But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you

But is this what we live? Is this how the children hear us talk about foreign policy ? We may never directly tell them to hate anybody. But what are the indirect messages that they get from us? What are the messages that we teach through our actions?

Friday, March 14, 2014

Again he raises the bar -Friday

[i was informed that yesterday's reflection did not post so here it is. ]

We are told once again today and the reading that we must be better than others. Not in the way we usually use that expression, but in our behavior. 

It calls to mind the words of the confiteor, "in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do."

According to Jesus merely allowing anger to take root in us is a sin. 

And my favorite verse is 5:23.
"... if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you,…"

Notice that this isn't about you forgiving someone else. It's about you needing to be the one to go and ask forgiveness, which of course means acknowledging that you are the one who offended. 

It doesn't matter if you meant to offend or not. It doesn't matter if in your judgement the person should be offended. The fact is, they are. And if we are Christians we need to be the ones to step up and apologize, plain and simple. If the other person refuses to be reconciled we cannot control that, but we can be the one to make the first move. 

On this second Friday of Lent is there someone you need to apologize to. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Bless are the poor in Spirit

No that isn't from today's gospel, but the concept is. The word St. Matthew uses does not just mean poor, but destitute, reduced to begging.

When the first reading opening, Queen Esther is in that extract state. She is in such anguish that she has thrown herself on the ground, and is begging God for help.

Did God do this to her? Of course not. The evil that is happening to her, like most evil, is the result of someone misusing one of the most precious gifts we have, free will.

Does God like to see us beg? No God does not like to see any of his children in anguish. God, like any true parent, has the ultimate sympathy for his children, he allows himself to feel our pain.

What God wants most of all is in today's psalm.

When I called, you answered me; you built up strength within me.

God wants to fill us up completely with his love, his grace, his very self.

Of course, before a container can be filled it must be emptied. Some people, and I think they are probably few, are able to freely empty themselves, pour themselves out so that God can fill them.

For most of us, we have to be emptied. We want God, but only in a confined space. The rest of the space we have filled with other people and things, including our own ego. For many of us, God has to allow (not cause) evil to befall us. And it is always painful. It is even more painful when we have to admit that, at least in part we did it do ourselves.

Suddenly we find ourselves in a horrible situation which we could have never imagined. We beg God to rescue us. We feel like we are going to die. We may even want to die. Then we are πτωχος, poor, truly poor in spirit. The good news is that God can then truly fill us.

But look again at the line from the psalm. It does not say "When. I called, you answered me and made my problems vanish." No, it says, "…you built up strength within me." Filled with God we can get up off the ground and face the world head on. We have the strength to deal with whatever lies before us.

Blessed are the poor is spirit sounds sweet, but only to those who have never lived in poverty, spiritual or physical. True poverty is miserable, but it is one of many steps along the road to the kingdom of God.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Location, Location, Location

Let me start off by acknowledging that everything I am about to say is to some degree wrong, or at least incomplete. God exists outside either time or space. We are the ones confined to those dimensions. But if we limited ourselves to saying only those things about God that were fully,completely accurate, we would be left mute. Even Jesus is stuck using metaphors and parables to try and explain what is, in its fullness, beyond our comprehension.

Today in the gospel we have the Our Father, and being practical people we tend to jump over the intro and go right to the list of requests, "give us...forgive us..lead us...deliver us."

But let's step back and look at those opening words: "Our Father, who art in heaven." Yes I know there are those who still go apoplectic over the male language, but Father is a simple statement of fact. If Mary was Jesus's mother and we are his adopted siblings, then Mary is our mother and God is therefore our Father.

More to the point of this reflection. The father is described as being in heaven. And I find that for me location is a better way of understanding the Trinity than function.

When I was in seminary there was a period when you would hear Father, Son, and Holy Spirit replaced with Creator, Redeemder,and Sanctifier. The problem with that is that it was all a collaborative effort. The first thing the Father does in Genesis chapter 1 is send the Spirit, the Ruah to bring order out of chaos.

For me the simplest way to grasp the Trinity, with a modicum of accuracy, is by location. The Father is in heaven, the anchor point. The Son became incarnate, lived suffered death, rose, remained on earth for bit, ascended and sits at the right hand of the father, and will return at the end of time. The Holy Spirit dwells in us, the temples of the Holy Spirit.

Two important notes:
1) I heard someone recently refer to Holy Week, as "the last week of Jesus's earthly life." We need to remember that all of Jesus left the tomb. Between the resurrection and the ascension, Jesus was not Casper the friendly ghost. When Jesus ascended, he ascended in his entirety, body and soul.

2)While Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, sits at the right hand of the Father, he is also present here on earth in every tabernacle in the world. Because he is God, and lives outside time and space, he can do that.

We pray most often, to the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. Do you want to spend time with Jesus? Don't sit at home and imagine, find an open church, and go and sit with him.

Father in heaven, Son in Eucharist, Holy Spirit in me by virtue of my baptism.

All the one God.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The New Mob Mentality

Today's gospel is the passage from which is drawn the corporal works of mercy:
Feed the hungry
Give drink to the thirsty
Clothe the naked
Shelter the homeless
Visit the sick
Visit the imprisoned
Bury the dead

And we have the scene of judgement when Jesus separates the sheep from the goats.
Those who are saved discover to their surprise that

whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.

Those who are damned are horrified to discover

what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.

If you grew up Christian at all you know this story. So individually we put the money in our rice bowls, we give to charity, the food pantry, the clothing closet. These are all good, but that is only one aspect of our lives.

This is one of many areas where we can be very Christian as individuals, but when acting collectively we loose our Christianity. Are we as charitable in the public policy we support? Do we think we can hide in a group? Do we think that when we are acting collectively there is no personal responsibility?

It is well and good for me to tell the young pregnant single girl not to have the abortion. But what sense does it make for me to then tell my state and federal legislator to cut off all assistance to her and the baby? One of the saddest things I do as a priest is go to baptize the premature baby, dying because of something that could have been prevented if the mother had had proper prenatal care.

We cannot compartment our lives. The same principles must apply to my life as an individual and my life as a citizen of my city,state, and nation. In the end God will judge the totality of my life, and yours.

Does it cost to be Christian? You betcha. It's why the word sacrifice is so central to our faith, the sacrifice of Christ, and our call to imitate it.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Do we still believe?

Yes we still believe in the devil. Not the cartoon with horns, tail and pitchfork, but a purely spiritual creature. And this is what the catechism underscores is that he is merely another one of God's creatures, who by his own free will turned away from God.

There are three words in the scripture that underscore the core of our understanding. The first two are the names we use

Satan is the Hebrew term, the accuser, the adversary. Think legal term. On your side is the advocate; on the other side the accuser. If the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete is there to tell you all truth, the Satan is there to tell the lie.

The Greeks use a different metaphor, Διαβολος- diabοloς, devil. It literally means to throw across. Think about strolling down the road and someone throws something across your path. In short, it's things that trip you up.

The third word is temptation. In both Greek and Latin it refers to testing.

We all experience these voices. The voice that keeps us from truly feeling forgiven even when we have just gone to confession. The voice that distracts us when we try our best to pray. The voice that rationalizes not doing a good deed. If we can get past the caricatures, we all have experienced Satan, the Devil, the Tester.

The catechism describes it this way
He is only a creature, powerful from the fact that he is pure spirit, but still a creature. He cannot prevent the building up of God's reign. Although Satan may act in the world out of hatred for God and his kingdom in Christ Jesus, and although his action may cause grave injuries - of a spiritual nature and, indirectly, even of a physical nature - to each man and to society, the action is permitted by divine providence which with strength and gentleness guides human and cosmic history. It is a great mystery that providence should permit diabolical activity, but "we know that in everything God works for good with those who love him."

And like Jesus we can choose to turn away from sin.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Five simple steps

As we move deeper into Lent today we get a simple list of 5 things
Three things we need to get rid of:
-false accusation
-malicious speech

And two things we should do:
-bestow your bread on the hungry
-satisfy the afflicted

It strikes me, that we may not even be able to get past item number one on the list because of a lie. We often refer to Satan as "the Father of lies." And the best lies for leading people down the wrong path is to tell them a lie that they want to believe.

We hear a word like oppression and we think of slavery. We abolished slavery, and so we tell ourselves the lie that nobody is oppressed in America. Physical slavery, and overt racism are not the only kinds of oppression.

Our faith teaches that every single human being is of equal dignity, and must be treated as such always and everywhere. We still have a long ways to go.

As for false accusation an malicious speech, in American English we call that "news." I could blame the media but they are only feeding us what we want, junk food.

When we are told to get rid of false accusation and malicious speech, it doesn't just mean we shouldn't do it ourselves. It also means we shouldn't listen to it, watch it, or read it.

Perhaps Lent is not only a time to change our food diet, but to clean up our information diet as well. How much of what we take in each day is merely the ramblings of individuals with no real expertise or just partisan political bickering? Junk Food. We may like it, but over time it kills us, from the inside.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Words we still need

On this first Friday of Lent the psalm calls to mind two word. Both of them seem to have fallen out of our ordinary vocabulary. Perhaps it is not a bad thing that we have a revulsion to them. In an odd way it says we still have a conscience.

The words I am talking about are humbled and contrite. Notice the word isn't humble, but humbled. There is a world of difference. One can be humble, but being humbled is something that happens to us, and rarely in a quiet pain-free way. No, being humbled is usually quite painful, and goes hand in hand with its cousin humiliation.

The other word contrite, requires that we acknowledge another thing which we avoid talking about, sin. After all, how can I be sorry for my sin, until I first acknowledge that I have sinned. Lent is not just about the grave, moral sin. It is more importantly about rooting out the little sin, that like wire grass can take over the yard.

The first step to rooting it out is precisely contrition, feeling sad for the sin we commit. When we participate in the gossip in the office to truly feel bad, calling to mind how you would feel if you were the one bring talked about behind your back. If you never feel contrition you can never truly feel compassion, both come from the same place.

Events are going to happen in our lives that humble us, allow the humiliation in. It is a truly transforming force. And when we sin, even in a small way, we should allow ourselves to feel, to feel true contrition.

A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.

May we all be humbled and contrite this Lent.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Making a choice

On this second day of Lent we are given a simple, binary choice.

Today I have set before you life and prosperity, death and doom....Choose Life.

On the surface it sounds like hyperbole; it sounds like God is going to kill us if we break the law. But it is really something much more profound.

We are created by God. We are created in the image and likeness of God. God knows us better than we know ourselves.

God law is not an imposition; it's the owners manual. And the question is do you want to have a life? Not just and existence, but a full human life, the life God intended you to have.

A perfect example are the dietary laws. Moses and the people of Israel had no idea why. We can now look back and see good reasons why the laws made sense. The laws for washing—in a world where water was precious to the people a around them it seemed crazy. We understand perfectly well why you should wash yourself, and dishes, and pots and pans.

The hard part is we can't accept our ignorance. When there are parts of God's law we still don't understand, rather than trusting God, we want to ignore the rules we don't understand.

Something as simple as Sabbath. For our Jewish brothers and sisters it is Saturday, for us the Lord's Day, Sunday. Go ahead don't observe the Sabbath, work seven days a week, run around like a crazy person. Then tell me about the quality of your life, the quality of your marriage, the relationships with family and friends. Tell me about that emptiness inside, where your relationship with god ought to be.

God built us and has given us the instructions about how to live a full, truly happy life, not just how to exist, which is what many of us today are doing.

But as this reading reminds us, the choice is ours. We can go on ignoring the instructions, but we are choosing death. Not just, last judgement death, but physical, emotional, spiritual death in the here and now.

We are neither animals nor machines. We are human beings, both physical and spiritual. We were created to be in relationship, with God and others. This lent it is time to reclaim our lives.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Worth remembering

Today we use the English translation of Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday. As we Catholics begin our rather wimpy version of Lent, it is worth recalling the older tradition that many of our Eastern brothers and sisters keep even now.

In the east they move into the Lenten fast gradually. First there was the Sunday called in English "meatfare." This is the day after which no meat can be eaten. The following Sunday, cheesefare, extends the fasting to include products from animals. This includes all diary products and eggs. Here is where we find the fat of Fat Tuesday.

Today would be the last day on which any animal fat could be consumed. Imagine no butter, no fried food until Easter Sunday. Even more difficult from my point of view, no dairy or eggs. To put it most simply, until recently Christians became vegetarians for Lent. That's why those eggs, and sweet buttery breads on Easter Sunday were so meaningful. When you've gone all of Lent without eggs, that Easter egg looks really good.

In the West we are required to fast, only tomorrow and Good Friday, and to abstain from meat on all Fridays. That is the minimum. I thought it worth recalling the older tradition to perhaps encourage us to be more than minimalists.

While most of us probably aren't ready to go full vegetarian. Perhaps the most important thing is that we choose a Lenten eating plan that will shake up out routine, transform our daily life, and constantly remind us throughout Lent that it should be CONSTANT conversion.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Who are we?

In these last two days before Lent we take a brief glimpse into the First Letter of St. Peter. The opening words chose two nouns which shape the entire vision of what it means to be a Christian.

From one side, he calls us the elect the chosen ones, recalling John's gospel,

It is not you who chose me but I who chose you.

We think religion is about us picking what appeals to us. We think we choose our religion; we choose our church. We forget that first of all God calls us. All we can do is sincerely respond to the call.

Secondly, he calls us exiles, sojourners. Every time we here the immigration debate around us, it can serve as a reminder to us that we are not to behave as citizens. On a spiritual level we surrendered our US citizenship on the day of our baptism. We traded it for citizenship in the Kingdom of God. We are at most green card holders. If we live as Christians we will always feel slightly out of sink with the citizens around us. We will stick out, as foreigners. We will live with one foot in each world.

What makes this so difficult is that we want as adults what we wanted as children, to fit in. The more we change our lives and live as citizens of the kingdom, the more foreign we will look and feel. And that's not only OK; it's good.

It is and always has been a myth that the US or any other earthly country is a Christian nation. There is only one Christian nation, the Kingdom of God, and it is not of this world.

As we prepare to enter Lent perhaps we should ask how we need to transform our lives, with the help of God, so that we might have the courage to live more fully as the elect of God, exiles in this world.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Don't worry

When we think about what makes us human, we think that one of the things that sets us apart is our wide range of emotions. In reality, there are only two basic human emotions fear and love. All the others are in one way or another rooted in these two:compassion, loss, sadness, joy, anger, hatred and the one today's gospel address worry. They are all just different manifestations of the same two feelings.

John captures it most succinctly when he wrote

There is no fear in love; but perfect love (teleia agape) casts out all fear (1 Jn 4:18).

When today's gospel tells us not to worry, we can make the mistake of thinking that somehow by force of will we are supposed to make ourselves stop worrying. That's foolish. No one can do that. You can't just say, "I'm not going to worry." And stop worrying.

We do know however that the human mind cannot pay attention to two thinks at the same time. We we say we are multi-tasking, what we are really doing is switching our attention back and forth between objects.

When it comes to dealing with worry this comes in very handy. If we focus our attention on the act of loving, we cannot simultaneously worry. First of all, because worry is internal, love is external. Love turns our attention outward, away from ourself, toward others and ultimately toward God.

It is simply physically impossible for me to give my full undivided attention to God or anyone else, and simultaneously worry. The brain cannot do it. The minute I begin to worry I am no longer paying attention to the other person; I have turned inward.

You say, "But what if I am sitting and talking with the person I am worried about?" Again, I would respond that if you are worrying, then you are not in the act of loving. You cannot be attentively listening, and simultaneously worrying. More than likely, while the person is talking you are thinking about what is to be done, or mustering your argument for when it's your turn to talk. That is not agape, and certainly not perfect love.

Worry, like so many of the other things we call emotions, is a child of fear. The path to overcoming it are the two great commandments. Love God; love your negherbor.

In this 21st century one of the skills we have lost is the ability to focus, to truly pay attention to one thing at a time. Our minds flit from one thing to the other constantly. When you find yourself worrying, notice where your attention is focused. Then turn it outward, toward God or some other person and love them. True love is an activity. Engage your mind in the act of loving and there will be no room for worry, or anger, or fear.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

It's in the Bible

How perfect! Four days before the start of Lent we get this reading from James. For all those folks who think they don't need to go to confession.

Ok. You're right; it doesn't say anything about a priest. It says

confess your sins to one another

And the first Christians took this quite literally. It was the expectation that those who had committed grave sin would stand up in front of the community and confess their sin. Then presbyter/ bishop would absolve them based on John 20:23.

Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.

As the Church grew this public confession became impracticable and so after only a few centuries the Church developed our current individual confession.

We can forget that for a millennium and a half all Christians believed in and practiced some form of the Sacrament of Penance. Those who would deny the biblical and historical foundations of the sacrament are simply choosing to ignore what they do not like. It reminds me of how I was told as a child that the wine Jesus made at Cana didn't have alcohol.

To those who would say, "God alone can forgive sin." It is good to remember that those words are only spoken by the scribes and Pharisees.

Almost no one likes to confess their sins. The idea that I can sit alone in my room and just whisper it to God is a wonderful idea, but it isn't biblical.

Are we saying that all the non-Catholic, non-Orthodox Christians are going to hell? Of course not. If I had died when I was a Baptist boy, God would have forgiven me, because I was ignorant. I didn't know how the sacrament worked. In morals ignorance is an excuse. But now I know, and I have no excuse.

In four days we begin the season of Lent. Churches around the world will be increasing the number of hours available for confession. Perhaps it has been a very long time since you have been to confession. None of that really matters. Like the prodigal son we are all welcome to come home.