Sunday, April 20, 2014

Preposterous—Easter Sunday

This is a homily I prepared in case the bishop or other deacon did not have one for today. With so many services, we had a few moments of confusion and disarray, but all the clergy were ready with their parts regardless. What a weekend! Anyway, here's what I put together yesterday when it appeared that I might have to preach.

Acts: 10:34a, 37—43; 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8; John 20:1-9

What is the most absurd claim that we as Catholics believe? I mean, we believe in some pretty outlandish stuff: we believe that the water of baptism removes the stain of sin, that saints in heaven intercede on our behalf, that a priest consecrates bread and wine and they become the body and blood of Christ. These and so many of our other beliefs sound preposterous to people of today’s secular, materialistic mindset.

When I was making my way back to the faith, these individual claims sounded just that to me: absurd, preposterous. But the most preposterous of all was this: that God became man, was crucified, and rose from the dead. All of the other stuff was miniscule compared to this. Sure, I could accept that God existed, set everything in motion, and had some vague presence in the universe today. I could accept that a man name Jesus walked the earth and taught a new way of living. None of those claims is difficult. But our creed doesn’t allow us to slip by this central tenet of our faith: God became man through the natural birth from a woman, was condemned and crucified, and on the third day after he was buried, cold and in the ground, he rose from the grave and was seen by those who knew and had followed him.

            The readings from Acts and the gospel today are all about witness: about reporting what has been seen and experienced. In Acts, Peter recounts Jesus’ deeds and the common knowledge everyone had of him: he came doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, those who were sick, blind, and dying. And everyone knew he had been put to death. Then he claims that this man, Jesus, was raised and appeared to them. And this Jesus sent them as witnesses to preach the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the dead. In early Acts, this witness of Peter and the other Apostles leads to thousands of conversions, even among the Pharisees and Sanhedrin, Jesus’ staunchest enemies.

            In the Gospel of John, Mary of Magdala runs and informs Peter and another apostle that the tomb is empty. Peter and the apostle run to find an empty grave. This empty grave is the most compelling proof. Not everyone saw Jesus after death, though St. Paul says elsewhere that he appeared to at least 500 people at one time. But what no one could dispute was that Jesus’ body was nowhere to be found and that these apostles of Jesus were now doing all the same signs that he did: healing the sick, raising the dead, restoring those who were disabled.

            The witness of the Apostles we have from the first 30 to 50 years of the Church. What we don’t have are a lot of contrary voices disputing their claims. I could go through some of that history for you, but I think most of you would find it boring and academic. But it’s easy for us to look back in hindsight and turn our noses up at these historical claims that scripture makes. We could look at the Church now and think, “Well, of course, these apostles were simply looking for power and wealth.” But what did the apostles really gain by their witness? What they gained was persecution, exile, and many of them, death. All but one of them, our patron St. John the Evangelist, were martyred for their faith. That doesn’t sound like a big motivation to me. Why would a bunch of fisherman, tax collectors, and other notorious outcasts put themselves at odds with other Jews and with Roman authorities at the risk of death and ostracism? How could anyone do such a thing for such a preposterous, such an absurd story?

            There’s really only one plausible explanation: they believed what they saw with their own eyes. They were witnesses to the truth. It changed them, and they could not go back to how they lived before. No one could believe such things unless they were true.

Stranger than fiction but true

Contrary to common sense but true

Absolutely beyond our understanding but true

That’s what we come to celebrate today: something so outrageous that no one would ever have believed it, taught it, lived and died for it, unless it were absolutely true. That is the truth to which they are witness: something so mysterious, profound, and beyond belief that it has shaken the world to the core. It has torn the veil in the temple between us and God. It has wrenched human destiny out of the grip of Satan and repaired the rift we had with our Creator. After something like that, believing in the mystery of the Eucharist is a piece of cake.

What do we do with this fantastic, this audacious truth? What do we do with this incredible, life-transforming faith? We do what the apostles did. We become witnesses for it—martyrs for it. The word martyr actually means witness, so our witness is a martyrdom of a type, albeit not necessarily the kind of radical martyrdom that requires our death. St. Paul tells us what we are to do in his letter to the Corinthians. Remove the leaven of malice and wickedness, become unleavened. Shed the attitudes and attachments of this temporary life, and be unleavened bread for others. When we share in this Eucharistic mystery, we become this bread of life. We become the Body of Christ. We can then take our witness out into the world and feed it what it is lacking. Share your faith daily in your actions and sometimes even your words. Live your faith and show the world the joy of being a Christian.

Our preposterous faith

Our beautiful faith

Our Catholic faith

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Turn again, and strengthen your brethren—Palm Sunday—Cycle A

Every year during Lent, my wife and I watch the Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of Christ. Sometimes having the visual reminder of Christ’s passion helps us to get in the right penitential mindset. I don’t think you can watch that depiction of the events of the Passion and remain unmoved.
At one point in the movie, when the Sanhedrin have brought Jesus in front of Pilate to request that he be condemned, Pilate says something that does not appear in scripture but is certainly a pertinent question: “Isn’t he the prophet you welcomed into Jerusalem only five days ago? And now you want him dead? Can any of you explain this madness to me?”
Some of the controversies of today merit the same response: when people are run out of jobs for holding positions that were not even controversial 10 years ago, like the Mozilla founder and inventor of JavaScript who was pushed out of his new job as CEO last week because of his support for traditional marriage. Can you explain why something considered the norm for most of human history is now considered bigotry? Can you explain why good people are being dragged through the mud simply to sate the appetites of the intolerantly tolerant?
It’s the same illness as always. It’s that fatal flaw in us—that weakness we have for seeking not the highest good but the good that we can grasp right now, or more often, whatever feels good whether it’s truly good or not. That is the essence of the Tyranny of Relativism that our Pope Emeritus Benedict once spoke about, and Pope Francis also just this Friday commented on this dictatorship of thought that drives factions to kill the prophets of today.
In our two gospel readings, we get this same juxtaposition: the welcoming of the prophet followed within a week by his condemnation. Today we celebrate Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, but we also read of His Passion and death. The first reading from Isaiah presents the same contrast: the prophet with the well-trained tongue, who does not rebel against his vocation but is open to it, even thought his obedience is rewarded with buffeting and spitting. Isaiah’s suffering servant is fascinating enough, as it seems to portray so clearly a savior who is rejected and condemned some 800 years prior to our Savior’s death. In the responsorial Psalm today, we heard Psalm 22, which is the cry of one who even in death trusts the Lord. Jesus himself cries out the opening lines of this Psalm in the Passion narrative, and even the mockery he receives in the narrative points back to this Psalm written several hundreds of years before Jesus’ death.
Our scripture has this incredible quality where passages written during the time of the Israelites point forward to Jesus, and the gospels point back to those earlier writings. St. Augustine noted this when he said that the New Testament is hidden in the old, and the old is plainly visible in the new. And we see it most clearly right here in the passion narrative we read today. And this makes perfect sense because all of scripture, all of the Word of God, is about the Logos, the Word made Flesh—Jesus our savior.
I know that I would like to be brave like the prophet Isaiah, or to face threats to my life with Jesus’ resolve. I’m sure all of us would like to believe that we have it in us. Would we have followed Our Lord with courage like St. Thomas in last week’s reading, or would we be the ones asking at the Last Supper, “Surely, it is not I, Lord?” How many of us are, like Peter, so sure of our steadfast faith when words are easy, but so ready to bolt at the first sign of trouble? Will we have the courage of our convictions when we face persecution? Will we stand firm with our unpopular convictions when the costs are great? Maybe so, maybe not. If it happened to Peter, it could happen to me.
In Luke’s version of the passion, Jesus says to Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail: and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” Jesus knew Peter would fail, but He still trusted that Peter would return to Him. Contrast this with Judas, who betrays Jesus, then despairs. Both of them are there at the Last Supper, but only one remains, turns back, becomes the Rock on which the Church is built.
We will all fall and have all fallen. But what we do after that is what matters. Will we repent? Will we seek to be reconciled, or will we double down on our error? Will we despair and give in to the voices of the secular world, or will we bow our heads and say, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner”? We turn back not only for ourselves but to strengthen each other.

We have four more days of Lent, and then we celebrate the Easter Triduum—the holiest days of our liturgical year. If you’ve had difficulty this Lent, there’s still time to put yourself in the spirit of this penitential season. Watch The Passion of Christ. Read the gospels. Spend some time in adoration or contemplating the crucifix. Pray the Stations of the Cross. And if you haven’t done so already, go to reconciliation. Reflect on the fact that Jesus did not turn away from this cup… but drank until it was finished. We can be sifted like wheat, or we can turn again, and strengthen our brethren.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Temptation and Redemption: Sunday—First week in Lent, Cycle A

Gen. 2:7–9, 3:1–7; Rom. 5:12–19; Matt. 4:1–11

Our grandson Nathyn is unusual in his eating habits. He loves just about all of the things most kids dislike at his age: broccoli, green beans, you name it. Most of all, he loves cherry tomatoes. When he was about three, my wife Gina took him shopping with her. He saw that she put cherry tomatoes in the cart. When they got home, he asked if he could have some. Nana—that’s what all the grandchildren call Gina—said that he needed to wait until dinner time. Well, she unpacked the items, putting the cherry tomatoes on the counter in the container. Thinking Nathyn was preoccupied with his toys in the living room, she went to do something in another room. When she came out, he was standing in the hall looking a little guilty. She started to ask him what he was up to and said, “Nathyn?”

He answered, “Nuffing!” He had seeds and reddish goo on his face and clothes, and the package of tomatoes was completely empty. I think that image perfectly parallels this story of the Fall in Genesis. Perhaps the “tree” in the garden was actually a tomato plant.

This week’s readings and psalm tie together and support each other so well and are such a fitting introduction to this Lenten season. First, we have the story of sin’s introduction into the world by the actions of the first man. Then Paul gives us a theological explanation of that calamity and how Jesus undoes it, and in our gospel reading we see how Jesus begins His act of reparation. And in the middle, we have the lament of the sinner who seeks reconciliation with God. Reconciliation is really what this 40-day season is about. In our ordinary daily lives, we tend to fall into a routine, and often that routine involves patterns that are unhealthy, indulgent, and selfish. Those tendencies go back to the very beginning.

In Genesis 2, God breathes life into the nostrils of the man whom He has made from the clay of the ground. The word for man, a DAM’ (or as we say, Adam), comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for the ground or earth surface, A da MAH. So Adam is literally an earthy man—one that comes from the surface of the Earth. God breathes the spirit—the life—into the man made from earth, and then sets him in a garden where he has purpose and freedom to do almost anything he likes. He has all he can eat, no natural predators, and God even makes him a companion, the woman, made out of all Adam’s best qualities: that’s what “bones of my bones and flesh of my flesh” means—woman is made of all the best things in Adam. 

But that’s not enough for our first parents. Adam and the woman want to be God, or at very least, just like God, and they take the only thing in the garden that God withholds from them. How often do we behave the same way: dissatisfied with our many blessings, grasping for more material good, or at very least wanting to make our own rules—our own morality—by remaking God in our own image rather than being content that He has made us in His image?

Paul gives us a glimmer of hope, pointing out that what Adam introduced in the world, Jesus undid and repaired—giving us the way back to life, if we choose it. Through the first man death entered the world; through Jesus, the New Adam, came grace and justification—and new life. The Church has always extended this parallel between Adam and Christ to Eve and the Blessed Mother. The early Church Fathers saw the Blessed Mother as the New Eve who, through her obedience, undoes the disobedience of Eve. 

In Matthew 4, we see the beginning of the reversal. Jesus willingly goes out into the desert: a place of bare subsistence, desolation, and hardship—an area that lacks the cultivation of a garden or a city.  Where the first Adam had all that he could ever need given to Him directly from the Father, the New Adam goes out to where there is nothing. Where our first parents seek more, Jesus goes out to where there is less. He forgoes the rights he has as God, dismisses Satan’s temptation to do for himself: to make bread out of stones, to prove his divinity, or to claim earthly power. That’s really what Satan does here in Matthew: tempts the Lord of the universe with the goods of the earth, the goods that He Himself created.

Jesus’ forty days and nights in the desert are the preparation He undergoes for His earthly ministry. His cross will demand more severity and hardship than the desert can dish out. He will suffer greater spiritual temptations than the mere physical temptations that Satan offers Him. Contrast this with our first parents, who grasp after physical things seeking that which belongs to God. That is a perfect symbol for how many of us live our lives. We seek our fulfillment in the things of the world to the loss of the inheritance we have in God, thinking somehow we will find everlasting fulfillment in the temporary things of this earth. That is just how broken we are because of the sin of our first parents. But even in the story of the Fall, God is already telling us His plan for our redemption: her seed shall bruise the serpent’s head. “Her seed,” of course, is Jesus Himself, and the woman is the Blessed Mother.

At the Easter Vigil, we sing in the Exultet, “Oh happy fault that earned so glorious a redeemer.” Even as Adam and Eve are cowering in their fig-leaf loincloths, probably still a mess with the forbidden fruit they took—like a three-year old who gets into the cherry tomatoes and thinks no one suspects—God is already preparing the remedy for the fall, and He sends us a Savior whom we do not deserve. But with the love of a Father, he does it anyway.

Today we begin our 40 days in the desert. The Church in its wisdom did not arbitrarily set the length of this season of Lent to 40 days but did so specifically to recall the time Jesus spent in the desert. This is a time to set aside the attachments we have to the goods of the earth—a time when we fast, offer prayer, and give alms so that we are better prepared for the spiritual temptations we will encounter throughout the rest of the year. But Lent is also our preparation for the most holy days of our liturgical year and for the remembrance of the Paschal sacrifice that ended the death that our first parents incurred for us. 

We prepare to take up our own cross and to follow the savior who has given everything for us and to us. Oh happy fault that earned for us so glorious and gracious a redeemer.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Rend Your Hearts—Ash Wednesday, Cycle A

Joel 2:12–18; 2 Cor. 5:20–6:2; Matt. 6:1–6, 16–18

Ashes are an ancient symbol of repentance. Throughout scripture we see references to sackcloth and ashes in connection to calls for repentance, and they continued to be symbols employed by penitents long after the New Testament period.

That penitential spirit is what ties our celebration today with this first reading, even though the use of sackcloth and ashes isn’t mentioned. Joel, or Yoel, was one of the minor prophets of Israel. The context tells us that he wrote in a time when the people of Israel had become sinful and cared more about pleasure and fine living than they did about their relationship with God. They had gotten lazy, self absorbed. Perhaps they neglected other basic observances such as care for the poor.

To me, it sounds a bit like our own culture, which should not surprise us. We’re fallen beings, after all, and we humans tend to repeat the same mistakes.

Joel calls the people back from their sinfulness, warning of God’s impending wrath and a day of judgment. He calls them not as individuals but as a community.

“Proclaim a fast, call an assembly”

The word for assembly in Hebrew is Qahal, and is translated in the Greek Old Testament as ekklesia—and that word is where we get our words in the New Testament for anything related to the Church. So Joel is calling the Church together to fast and weep and mourn for the communal sins of the nation. The repentance that Joel seeks is very much public and communal—a call to every citizen, even the bride and bridegroom who would normally be still celebrating their nuptials.

But even though Joel calls for public penance, he is not asking merely for ritual acts. He calls for true sorrow: “Rend your hearts, not your garments!” You see, in addition to temple sacrifices for sin, people would often engage in other theatrics to show just how serious they were about their repentance and they’d rend their garments—that is, tear them from top to bottom. That’s pretty dramatic, and I doubt any but the wealthy could afford to do it. Joel doesn’t want that nonsense. He wants true heartfelt repentance, and nothing more will do for a God who searches hearts and thoughts.

The responsorial psalm for this evening actually leaves out an important passage that clergy and religious often pray with Psalm 51, something very apropos for today: “For in sacrifice you take no delight, burnt offering from me you would refuse, my sacrifice, a contrite spirit. A humbled, contrite heart you will not spurn.”

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is really addressing the same issue: ostentatious displays of righteousness: the public giving of alms for the purpose of gaining esteem in the eyes of others; making the worst of ones appearance when fasting so everyone knows just how much you’re suffering, and otherwise putting on a show.

When we take these ashes on our foreheads, we are not simply identifying culturally with the Church or putting on a show. We have an opportunity to enter into this season in a true spirit of repentance with the entire ekklesia—the whole Church. We do so together as a communion because all sin is communal. We have a messed up world out there, if the situation in the Crimea and Syria isn’t clear enough examples, not to mention the fact that we have human trafficking going on in our own back yard. Sin hurts all of us. And that is why we as a Church do penance and reparation together—to repair the damage that sin does to our world and to help Jesus complete the work that was done in Him through his sacrificial offering of love in which we’ll partake shortly. Take advantage of Lent this year and offer a contrite spirit and humbled, contrite heart to the savior who died for you.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

God-Shaped Hole in Us: Sunday: Eighth week in Ordinary Time—Cycle A

Isaiah 49: 14–15; 1 Cor. 4:1–5; Matt. 6:24–34

When my daughter was young, I developed a very acute sense of awareness of the sounds in our house. Prior to that, I never had a problem falling or staying asleep. But since I’ve become a father, I am ever attuned to what happens in and around my household or even a block away. That hasn’t changed since she has moved out of the house. I doubt my experience is very different from other parents. Our priorities change. We become less focused on ourselves and more focused on the well being of others. Sometimes our love for our families and neighbors costs us and effects our health and overall sense of well being.

For you young people who stay out really late or ignore the frantic calls and text messages to your cell phones, keeping your parents awake with concern, there’s no need for you to feel any remorse when you contemplate how they sacrifice their health and well being on your behalf. It’s all part of the joy of parenthood.

Now I’m framing the reflection this way not to lay a guilt trip on our young people. That’s just a happy accident of choosing this topic tonight.

But I want to emphasize what our first reading and gospel stress. We need to depend on our Father for what we need. We need to shake off what the world tries to sell us and to entrust our care to God. We need to put our trust in Him and not the passing things of this world.

Isaiah 49 recounts Israel’s lament that it has been abandoned by God, and I have no doubt that they felt that way! Isaiah’s prophecies were written over a long period of time. This particular passage from our readings today comes from the time of the Babylonian Captivity, when Israel would have been mourning the loss of the temple and exile from their home. But also in this part of Isaiah are the many allusions to the suffering servant and to the coming messiah. Jesus himself alludes to many of these passages, and the commentary in the Revised Standard Version of the bible mentions that some scholars go as far as to call Isaiah an evangelist—like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

So as Israel laments, Isaiah tells them, “God has not forgotten you. Your savior is coming. Your salvation is near.” God knows them and what they need better than they do, but we humans are frail, and we don’t suffer well when we don’t understand the meaning of suffering. We must remember that God’s time is not our time. He doesn’t reply as soon as we cry out because sometimes the only way we can learn is by our experience. Jesus did not promise us wine and roses (or Mtn. Dew and Heath bars for the young people in our audience). He didn’t promise that we’d sail through life, but he promised us the cross, here, as we travel through this temporary life. Our reward can either be short lived here or eternal there.

The responsorial antiphon today is a simple plea to self: “Rest in God alone, my soul.” It’s a reminder for us to place ourselves in God’s care rather than to rely on our own strength. That is challenging for all of us and almost impossible for some in their difficult circumstances. You might have heard one person try to console another by saying,  “God never gives us more than we can handle”—that trite pietism that we often reach for when we don’t know what to say. That is simply not true for two reasons. First of all, God does not give evil to us in our lives. He will allow it because it’s the result of sin in our world. Second, God is not doling out shares of misery based on the amount of abuse that we’re all willing to take. That portrays God as a cruel task master who takes part in and drives our misery, as a thug. He will allow those few saints in our midst to shoulder burdens that most of us could not bear.

God does not give us misery, but he will allow us to experience the full weight of misery that our fallen human nature has incurred. He doesn’t do it to punish us but to allow us to accept and realize the concept of sin and to choose another way, the Way he provided in His Son, who also suffered unimaginably in our place. God allows it so that we may come to put ourselves wholly in His care and rely solely on His strength.

We have misery and death because our first parents, Adam and Eve, chose their wills over God’s. They wanted the knowledge of good and evil. Satan, in the form of the serpent, encouraged them to take it—to take what God had forbidden. And God allowed them to suffer the consequence, which was the loss of God’s grace and presence in us.

That God-shaped whole in us is the result of our parents’ original sin, their desire to be in control, their desire to be God. That God-shaped hole makes us restless, and we can respond in many ways. Some of us try to fill it with temporary happiness: we can possess lots of things, we can party like it’s 1999—or whatever that latest projected doomsday is. We can seek power and control over others. But if we put our trust in the things of this world, we will always be empty, always have that desire, and always have that God-shaped hole.

I’m going to lean on a doctor of our Church, who is so frequently quoted and so often misunderstood, St. Augustine. In his Confessions, the very first autobiography in western literature, he wrote in the opening paragraph, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (1.1). As long as we rely on our own strength, our own will, our own desire and intent… our own passion and personal inspiration… that God-shaped hole will remain and we will be ever restless.

Jesus had both human and Divine will. He had the option of choosing with His human will, yet He submitted his human will to His Divine will in the sacrifice we will commemorate in a few minutes. Through it, He brought about our salvation. Unless we submit our will to God, we can only do short-lived temporary things, and they will never fill that God-shaped hole. The Psalm that clergy and religious recite in our Liturgy of the Hours reminds me of the source of my discontent and its resolution:

Why are you cast down, my soul?
Why groan within me?
Hope in God: I will praise Him still,
My savior and my God.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Millstones and Salt: Thursday, Seventh week of Ordinary Time—Cycle II

James 5:1–6; Mark 9:41–50

I’m not going to dwell much on the reading from James today. I mentioned last week how much I like this epistle. But I will say that I found his title James the Less to be rather ironic given how fiery he can be. And to think he was “less” in comparison James, the brother of John, the two boanerges or “sons of thunder.” I can just imagine how they must have stormed and raged. Anyway, James isn’t saying anything more than what Jesus said in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain—just saying it with a lot more intensity.

The gospel reading from Mark contains passages that are also used in different parts in both Matthew and Luke. In Matthew, the central part is used in the Sermon on the Mount. In Luke the same pieces are spread throughout the gospel, as that evangelist tended to reuse Jesus’ parables as a way of exemplifying his teaching after he laid down the principals in his Sermon on the Plain. Mark’s gospel narrative account came first, so we get a lot of these sayings just sort of strung together in his gospel.

I want to highlight two images that Jesus uses in this gospel because I think they are fitting symbols both of what ails us in our world and the solution to it. The first is verse 42: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”

The culture in which we live is in the business of handing out millstones. It’s like there’s a blue-light special on aisle three for extra heavy millstones. Whether it’s Miley Cyrus twerking at the American Music Awards, the appalling state of television, the decline in general standards of decency, or something as heinous as human trafficking, there are plenty of us deserving of a millstone. And sadly some of us are all too willing to put them around our necks and be dragged down. Wherever we engage in self-absorption, materialism, and narcissism, we are neglecting the little ones.

And for those of us parents who continue to choose our desires and inclinations over the well being of our children, we’re not only loading up on a millstone for ourselves. We’re hanging one around the necks of our children because they will do what they see us do or even when they see what we appear to be doing. That’s called scandal. Some sins are generational, especially habitual lifestyle sins, and we do harm to our children when we teach them these harmful ways of being. Our sins harm us and they harm the people around us. There is no such thing as a personal sin. All sin is communal.

The second image I want to highlight is in verses 49 and 50: “Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? Keep salt in yourselves and you will have peace with one another.”

What does this mean? It’s a rather obscure phrase, but it alludes back to the sacrifices offered in the temple, which were salted to prevent corruption. We as Christians make sacrifices of ourselves and are purified through sacrificial living. Through acts of reparation and sacrifice, we are “salted with fire.” But when does salt become insipid or tasteless? When it loses its salty character. The character of sacrifice includes loving worship. If we carry out our actions here solely as obligations, they lose the character of true sacrifice. When we carry out our tasks at home as solely burdens, they lose the character of love. Salt only has value if it tastes like salt. Sacrifice only has value when it tastes like love. The sacrifice we offer here was offered out of the greatest love for us.

This week, go to your work and to your families and be Christ to them. Live the gospel in front of everyone you meet. Go out and be salt for the world.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Partiality—Thursday, Sixth week of Ordinary Time, Cycle II

James 2:1–9; Mark 8:27–33

I think the Letter of James is my favorite non-Pauline letter and may be my favorite New Testament letter all around. It is one of the Catholic epistles, those letters that were addressed not to a local church or an individual but to the whole Church. I like it because it really lives up to the name “Catholic” in its teaching. Martin Luther was tempted to drop James from his canon, calling it the “epistle of straw.” Traditionally, this letter is attributed to James the brother of the Lord, most likely the Apostle James the Less. We would call him a cousin of Jesus. Aramaic had no word for cousin, and the Semitic usage carried over into the Greek of the time. So here’s Luther who wants to toss out a book written by an apostle, a relative of Jesus, and the leader of the Church of Jerusalem because he’s somehow a better authority on what gospel Jesus preached. Luther didn’t like James because it taught thoroughly Catholic theology, but in the end he had to leave it be.

The letter notes the sinfulness of partiality when dealing with fellow Christians—favoring those with wealth and giving less honor to those who are poor. As someone who tends toward more conservative political ideology, I can’t help but feel a bit convicted when James points this out. It’s too easy to jump to conclusions about people based in their dress. If I’m honest with myself, I can see that there is a bias operating, even implicitly, in the way that we treat those who have greater means.

Of course, there’s injustice against the poor on both ends of our political spectrum. From the other end we usually hear directed at our Church the charge of hypocrisy for holding so much wealth in the form of art and architecture. These churches, some say, should be sold off and the food given to the poor. The people who utter such things forget that our beautiful churches and cathedrals belong to the poorest and the wealthiest together. Where else can a homeless person go to spend time in silence and warmth in such opulence without being harassed? Inadvertently, these people would rob those for whom they claim to advocate.

The real problem is that we are not looking at the poor as people. We see them as a problem. We see the man holding the sign, and we might respond in several ways. Some of us fumble around in our pockets and pull out a dollar or two to give him. Some of us look right past him, refuse to make eye contact, and act like he isn’t there. Both responses fail to see that there is a man standing there. They see a homeless man standing there. We encapsulate the man in his circumstances, and maybe we choose to address the circumstances around the man. But are we addressing the man?

In a way, that’s really what James is talking about—our common tendency to look superficially at each other and to neglect the human person standing before us. We forget that each of us has dignity as a rational creature and a child of God. We forget that that man right there has a name.

Within our own church, we can extend this to so many subgroups: people with special needs, single adults, and minorities of different types. When we come to this altar to receive the body and blood of Christ, do we see the other people here as our brothers and sisters? As our neighbors whom we are to love as ourselves? Do we recognize how this sacrament joins us to each other and makes us sharers in the same dignity? Is it just “Jesus and me,” or are we truly the body of Christ?

I want to suggest a positive action for you. The next time you see someone holding a sign, go get a sandwich or something and take it to him or her, and then ask them for their name. Introduce yourself. Talk with them for a minute or two. Notice how completely this changes the dynamic between the two of you because you have stopped looking at this person’s circumstances and have seen and acknowledged the person. How much easier it will be, then, to look at our fellow parishioners and see them as our family in this body of Christ.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Fulfillment of the Law: Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time—Cycle A

Sirach 15:15–20; 1 Cor. 2:6–10; Matt. 5:17–37

Our first reading today is from the Book of Sirach. It also has a Latin name: Ecclesiaticus. It was used from the third century on to instruct catechumens and neophytes, and perhaps it will now be of more interest to our catechumens and candidates after their dismissal in a few minutes. This book is one of several wisdom books that were part of the deuterocanon or second canon, which were excluded from the Protestant bible. That’s a shame because Sirach is a book of tremendous wisdom, much like Proverbs.

In this reading, Sirach alludes to Moses’ blessings and curses on Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim in Deuteronomy 30. In it, Moses recounts the 10 commandments and the Levitical law to the Hebrews and exhorts them to choose life—which in his time means to reject sin and ungodliness. Deuteronomy is the second pronouncement of the Law of Moses. Essentially, then, both Sirach and Deuteronomy are pointing back to the law that God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Both books of scripture point the way to life. We should not be surprised that scripture has so many of these references back and forth. That is a sign of its inspiration: that these individual books could be written on their own and yet hang together so well.

Besides, the Word Himself is its origin, so having this internal coherence makes sense.

Our gospel reading is notable because of its extraordinary claim. Jesus says that he has come not to abolish the law but fulfill it. What he meant was that He was not abrogating—or invalidating the law—but completing what the law intended. That is why the ritual law of the Jews passed away for Christians. The ritual law included circumcision, dietary and Sabbath restrictions, and the many sacrificial requirements that Jews had to perform regularly.

What Jesus doesn’t set aside is the moral law. In fact, he increases its demands on us. He says that to resort to angry speech against a neighbor is a form of murder: murder of reputation. He says that looking lustfully is a form of adultery: taking someone else’s spouse in your mind and objectifying them. We can pretend that we don’t understand what he’s saying in this passage, but we know exactly what he means. We’re all prone to such sins, and Jesus is calling us to something more—something better.

It’s rather common these days for people to lump the moral laws of the Old Testament in with the ritual laws of the Jewish people. Here’s how I commonly here the argument phrased:
Didn’t the Old Testament also condemn eating shellfish or eating dairy with meat? Should we be excommunicating people now for eating a cheeseburger or fried shrimp? 
These statements are used to suggest that somehow Jesus didn’t himself believe in the moral law of the Torah or in any moral restrictions about sex outside of marriage, either heterosexual or homosexual, or any of the other moral laws that seem so old fashioned to us modern sophisticates. Surely, Jesus didn’t believe or preach any of that stuff. The moral law of the Church just sprang up because a bunch of angry old white men in Rome wanted to ruin everyone’s fun.

But right here, smack in the middle of the first gospel, is Jesus being all judgey and telling us not to sin, not to lust, not to commit adultery. And in the Jewish understanding, adultery was simply a category of sexual sin and covered numerous sins including all of our culture’s favorite vices. Jesus was a Jew, and he taught the moral law of the Jews. We don’t have to guess what He thought because he was a Jew and lived by and fulfilled the Law of Moses. This is evident enough because Paul, who wrote his epistles before the gospels were written, condemns very clearly many of the same acts that are condemned earlier in Leviticus. The Church Fathers from the Apostolic age on confirmed the same beliefs. But to us it’s somehow a mystery what Jesus taught regarding morality?

What would Jesus do?

He would tell us not to commit sin.

He did so right here in the “Sermon on the Mount.” He did so in the account in the Gospel of John with the woman caught in adultery: “Go and sin no more.” He saves her from death, which is just what He does for us. He saves us and then sends us away to sin no more. He isn’t trying to ruin our fun, and neither is the Church when it warns us away from sin. Jesus and the Church warn us away from sin as good parents would warn their children away from poison. Jesus forgives us and leads us to repentance because we will otherwise die spiritually

 “I set before you life and death. Therefore choose life.”

Moral instruction is not condemnation. Moral instruction is a fence to keep us from death. The moral law is a law of love and a law of life. The moral law is not just etiquette—not just a set of table manners that we use to get along with each other. The moral law has eternal implications—implications about the state of our souls.

Now how do we transmit this message? That’s really the question. Pope Francis, as did Benedict and Blessed John Paul before him, stresses the need for conveying the truth with love. We have to start with the most basic truth: God loves us. God doesn’t just love humanity. God loves you. God loves me. God loves us each individually. He loves us so much that he came down and did that for us [pointing at the crucifix]. The greatest sign of his love is that which we will shortly share together: His body and blood given to us in His memory.

Jesus comes to us in our brokenness and sin, puts His arm around us, and says, “I love you as you are, and I forgive you. But you can’t stay here or you will die.

Admittedly, the basic gospel message gets drowned out if we begin by shouts of condemnation. We must preach the good news of the gospel before all else—that’s what the Greek word evangelion means, good news. Pope Benedict’s very first encyclical was titled, “God is Love.” Pope Francis has repeatedly noted the need to share God’s love first. God’s love and the grace of the Holy Spirit do the work of conversion. Only then can we see the fruits of the spirit at work. We need to make our Church a space where this kind of healing can take place. The Church is not a shrine reserved for the saintly or a country club for the biggest donors.

It’s a hospital for sinners,

a refuge for broken people,

for people like me, for people like you.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Feburary 6, Saint Paul Miki and Companion Martyrs

Proper of the Saints: Galatians 2:19–20; Psalm 126:1–6; Matthew 28:16–20

I chose to use readings from the proper of saints today because they seemed more fitting (proper?) than the readings from ordinary time.

Our two readings and psalm today highlight the evangelical spirit: that spirit which we encounter when we have opened ourselves completely to God’s will and made ourselves available to his call. We also celebrate the feast day of the martyr St. Paul Miki and twenty-five Japanese Catholics who were executed along with him during the reign of the daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 16th century Japan. This feast and the readings all share a common theme: the cost of discipleship.

It costs something to believe in and follow the teachings of Christ and His Church.

In the first reading, Paul says that our crucifixion with Christ means that we have died to self and are risen in Him. The life in us is not our own. And of course, Paul notes elsewhere that we die and rise with him in the baptism. Our risen Lord Jesus, in the reading from Matthew, places on the remaining 11 apostles the obligation to go out and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to observe what Christ has commanded. So Paul’s letter states what discipleship has cost him, and the same burden is laid upon all who become disciples: to die to self so that we can live in Christ.

We have to learn to accept the cross in our lives if we are truly going to die to self and live in Christ. That’s the mission of the disciple. Sometimes the cross is simply the sacrifice of earthly goods that we set aside for penance. Sometimes it’s rejection of a worldly good that our friends and neighbors claim as their just reward. Sometimes it’s the white martyrdom that comes from joyfully turning the cheek at the negative comments of a non-Catholic neighbor or family member. Sometimes it’s the weight of ministry or mission work. Some of these crosses we bear can be merely inconvenient. Others can be painful and even heartbreaking. But we try to bear those crosses in Christian joy.

Let’s not forget that the cost of discipleship can also be quite literally death. In the “Letter to the Hebrews,” a letter written to the Jews who had long before converted to Christianity, the author writes, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith.” The author of this letter is evoking the spirit of the earliest Christian martyrs: James the son of Zebedee, James the less, and Stephen. The early Jewish Christians very likely knew the teachers in question and perhaps even witnessed their martyrdom. You can bet they knew the cost of discipleship. Out of the eleven apostles mentioned in the reading from Matthew, all but one, our patron St. John the Evangelist, went to a martyr’s death.

Likewise the Church in Japan in the 16th century understood the price. St. Francis Xavier started a mission to Japan early in the century, and the Jesuits were well established by mid-century, even having converted some Samurai warlords. Hideyoshi decided to expel all foreign missionaries and began persecuting Japanese Catholics. St. Paul Miki was possibly in his early 30s and was a Jesuit novice. He came from the samurai class—the nobility. Instead of taking the trappings of a warrior, he chose the black Jesuit cassock of service. He and twenty-five other Japanese Catholics were crucified on this day in 1597 and became the first Catholic martyrs of Japan.

Tertullian wrote in his famous apology for the Christian faith that “the blood of Christians is seed for the
Church.” It’s a famous line from the third century that underscores the both the cost and the attraction of discipleship. It strangely complements the last stanza of our responsorial psalm today:
He that goes forth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.
A faith worth dying for is a faith worth living for. As we approach the altar today, let’s remember the millions of Catholics in our past with whom we share this communion, those Christians of the past who have made witness with their lives, and those Christians worldwide who even in this day regularly die for their faith.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Five Things that keep us from Following Jesus and Five Ways to Get Past Them

This is a talk I gave to a group of retreatants a few weeks back.

Christ does not offer us cheap grace. He gives us something that is worth sacrifice, but we live in a world that pulls at us and attempts to convince us otherwise.

But what is it that really attracts people to the faith? Tertullian, back in the third century, said that the blood of martyrs is seed for the Church. All over the world, people become Christians because of heroic Christian witness.

In the western world, this is not so much the case. We often forget why Christ’s offer to us differs from the promises of our material culture. Our culture promises temporary ease and comfort. Jesus doesn’t offer us that, but he does offer us an eternity in everlasting glory.

So how is it that we turn our backs on eternity and seek what is here and now? What keeps us from following the way, the truth, and the life?

The Obstructions


What things in our life seem to own us? Attachments are those tendencies we have to cling to worldly things. It is not that these things are not good but that they are often put before God or at very least held in such a way as they prevent us from moving more toward God.

An attachment is like an anchor to the material world, so that instead of using the things of this world to elevate us and grow closer to God, the things here bind us and hold us down. Attachments are frequently related to our needs: food, love, material possessions.

Attachment can very easily slip into idolatry, where a material good is placed above the ultimate good, God.
In one way or another, all of the obstructions are attachments of one kind or another.

You probably remember this passage from Matthew 19:21–24:

And behold, one came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?”17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”18 He said to him, “Which?” And Jesus said, “You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness,19 Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”20 The young man said to him, “All these I have observed; what do I still lack?”21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”22 When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.
23  And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.24        Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

What does this passage tell us? Do you think Jesus was condemning wealth, or do you think he knew where this young man’s priorities were and what attachments he possessed?

Attachments seem to be ever present in the mind. So I might think about the things that I want to own, currently possess, or used to possess.  I might also have an attachment to things I like to consume. They are those material goods with which we are obsessed.


I’m using the term distraction here in distinction or perhaps a specialized type of attachment that is sporadic and interruptive rather than constant.

Distractions are those preoccupations we have with events and activities more than things in and of themselves. A cell phone can be an attachment if we have to own the latest and greatest because of what it is. It is a distraction when it seems to be a leash on us, interrupting us when our attention needs to be elsewhere—when it’s normally inappropriate to be distracted.

Self-centeredness, mindless entertainment, and preoccupations with other people’s affairs can all be distractions. They are things external to us as opposed to those things intrinsic or part of our nature. Whereas attachments are usually related to needs in some fashion, distractions aren’t. That’s what distinguishes the two.

However, the distraction horizon has shrunk in the last 10 years. It used to be considered obviously rude if you were to constantly answer your phone when in a conversation with someone else. A sign of respect for a visitor in business was when you would forward your phone calls while you spoke. But now people routinely check their text messages or Facebook status when they’re out with friends at dinner. We’re getting to be a culture where it is acceptable, even normative, to be distracted.

From what are we distracted? From each other. From hearing God’s voice. From any outside voice that may be trying to reach us.

Have you ever tried to study for an exam or write a paper when a friend is texting you? How far do you get?
How about when you’re watching a movie or reading a great book? How much do you enjoy the movie or book?

Yet we allow constant incursions into our lives because of this little device right here (smart phone). 

Luke 12:13-21: 
One of the multitude said to him, "Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me."[14] But he said to him, "Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?"[15] And he said to them, "Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."[16] And he told them a parable, saying, "The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully;[17] and he thought to himself, 'What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?'[18] And he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods.[19] And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.'[20] But God said to him, 'Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?'[21] So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God."
We allow ourselves to get distracted by everything going on around us and forget the most important things: our relationships with family and friends, for sure, but also our relationship with God. It’s hard to hear the still, quiet voice of the Lord when your Sir Mix-a-lot ringtone keeps going off.

Wrong Relationship

Wrong relationship is any relationship that hinders us on our way to heaven.
  • A relationship in which we place someone other than God first is a wrong relationship.
  • A relationship in which the other (excepting God) insists on being our first priority is a wrong relationship.
  • A relationship in which we are not treated with the dignity of a child of God is wrong.
    • This means any relationship where we demean ourselves or are demeaned by another.
  • A relationship that does not leave us free to make our own choices is wrong.

Here’s the thing: God should always be paramount, but He never excludes care for others, which in many times has obligations tied to it. Prioritizing Him first does not exclude others from our care, but wrong relationships often try to be exclusive, whether they attempt to diminish your concern for God’s law or diminish your access to other people or God Himself.

We can’t always get out of wrong relationships because they might, at least for a while, be obligatory. For example, a parent-child relationship is obligatory for a time—certainly when you’re the parent of a child. 
However, when we put God first, He helps us to fulfill our obligations in our other relationships.

Luke 9:62: 
To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60 But he said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”61 Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.”62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
This sounds rather harsh. Our how about Luke 14:26: "If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple."

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. Jesus loved hyperbole. But his hyperbole always makes a point. You have to put God first. He maintains you in existence, for Pete’s sake! No other relationship is possible without God, so He must come first.


This one is obvious in some ways. Sin is, after all, an offense against God and mortal sin a deliberate turning away from God. But how do we get to this point?

Sin typically starts when we attempt to use something good in an improper way: when we indulge in a good that we should either use in moderation or should use only under particular circumstances. For example, alcohol is not evil. 

  • Wine and beer are good things, when used in moderation. When we use them to excess and intentionally get drunk, then we sin. 
  • Sex is in itself a good. When we use it outside of its intended purpose as a means of unity for spouses and procreation, it is sinful. 
  • Wealth is not sinful. Hoarding wealth, envying someone else’s wealth, or seeking wealth above all other goods is sinful.
Sin by its very nature turns us away from God: venial sins in small ways and mortal sins in a complete severing act.

It’s easy to slip into sin because our culture grooms us for it and tells us to do what we want. Many things the Church considers sinful is often considered normal behavior these days—even when everyone can see the harm that results.

I’m the right person to tell you this because it happened to me very slowly in my teen years. It started by small sins that wore away at my resolve, then worked up to more serious sins that were clear violations. And then I moved from trying to hide my sins to claiming they weren’t sins.

What is the next logical step? If you deny the law, then why do you need a lawgiver?

If you talk to most young adults who claim not to believe in God or in what the Church teaches, it is commonly because they are engaging in what the Church teaches as sin—and they know it. For me, I knew what I was doing was wrong. I could reject the Church, but I couldn’t get rid of the self-loathing that naturally accompanies sin.


It’s easy to see why sin separates us from God, but how does fear keep us away? Well, usually it’s because we don’t often know where God will take us, and we even see in scripture that we’re supposed to rejoice when we suffer persecution or deprivation.

If our culture tells us that life is only worth living if you are having fun, living the good life, and far from any physical or emotional pain, doesn’t the message of the Beatitudes sound a bit nutty?

  • Let someone take my cloak but also give them my shirt?
  • Turn the other cheek when someone strikes me? 
  • Leap for joy when someone curses me because I’m Christian?
Yeah, it sounds a bit nutty, but what it really comes down to is not being ruled by fears of deprivation. Typically that is what we fear, that our needs won’t be met, but God promises that we will get everything we need, and we can see that some of the most joyous people are those who get what they need and no more.

The Remedies

So there’s a whole lot that stands in the way of our following Jesus, and most of it is stuff that has been put there by our culture. Peer pressure doesn’t help, nor does it help that modern Christianity seems to edge closer to indifferentism all the time. Catholics are supposed to be countercultural but also evangelical, which requires engagement of culture. So you have to build yourself up properly to do it. Here are five ways that you can strengthen yourself so that you can follow Jesus.

Prayer with Silent Meditation

If you want to live a holy life and discern God’s will for it, you need to have a stable prayer life. By stable I mean that you need to engage in prayer habitually. It has to be as common to your life as your workout routine, setting the alarm clock, brushing your teeth. It needs to be intentional and regular.

Think of it as making time to check in with God daily.

When you’re married, you don’t forget to talk to your spouse several times a day. Well, while marriage is vitally important, it is not as fundamental as your relationship with the God who holds you in being. If your marriage will not survive you checking in less than once a day, then your relationship with God may not either.

Prayer is not just the empty recitation of rote verse or repetition of pious formulas. Prayer is a conversation with God. We have rote prayer to aid us in that conversation, but they do not have to be the totality of that conversation. We also have forms of prayer that are meant to join us to Christians all over the world. The Mass is such a prayer (and the highest form). Liturgy of the Hours is such a prayer. Popular devotions like the Rosary are such prayers. However, we can and should also pray extemporaneously—off the cuff, spur of the moment, natural speech.

A simple prepare that is very powerful is to offer your day to God every morning. There’s a story about an exorcist who, while trying to rid a person of possession, found himself having a conversation with Satan, and so he asked him some questions. He asked what daily failings Satan most enjoyed, and Satan responded that he was pleased when people forgot to offer their days to the Lord because then the day belonged to him.
There’s a popular story about St. Theresa of Avila, who was once traveling in a cart, which tipped and unceremoniously dumped her in a ditch. Her comment at the time was, “If this is how your treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them.”

That, my friends, was a prayer—a prayer of frustration, but a prayer nonetheless. You do have to look beyond the words to the emotion. But it was actually rather common. She was asking, “Why?”

Do you pray that prayer very often? Keep praying it. It will draw you closer to Jesus.

Jesus gave us a great model of prayer in the Our Father from Matthew:

  1. Praise
  2. Thanksgiving
  3. Confession of sin
  4. Petition
  5. Intercession
Not every prayer has to include every one of these, but it’s good to have these elements.

Now, that’s our side, but we can’t just wrap it up after that and go on with our day, or we’re cutting God out of the conversation. We also have to spend time listening to Him. We do that by sitting silently in meditation so that we can hear Him speaking to us.

Remember when Elijah was fleeing from King Ahab in 1 Kings 19:10? He goes to Mount Horeb to hide and wait until the Lord comes to Him. God eventually does and asks why He is there. Here’s that passage.
And he said, “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake;12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.13 And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
Elijah has to wait and listen for the still, small voice. How can he do that if he is distracted by text messaging, Facebook, or someone’s filet mignon on Pinterest?

We have to make time not only to make requests to God but also to listen and wait for his guidance.

Spiritual Detachment

All people of the first world need to learn about detachment. We are taught to be wrapped up in our possessions. Perhaps this goes especially for people in the U.S., but I’ve seen it just as much in Europe and other countries. If we want to grow closer to God, we have to prefer Him to all other goods. That doesn’t mean that we have to reject all other goods, but we need to be able to set them aside.

So think of your most precious possession. Now think of whether you can let it go. It’s not easy!

That’s why it takes practice. Start by loosening your grip on those items that don’t have a strong emotional claim on you: food, a few dollars from your pocket. Next, make an attempt to give away things you like but don’t use regularly. Then start giving away things you actually do use.

Here’s an idea I heard about recently. Turn all of your clothes hangers so that they hook on the opposite side of the bar. As you use items, turn the hangers around. At the end of the year (maybe Boxing Day, although I could never understand why pugilism and charity were somehow related), take everything you haven’t touched in a year and give it away.

Think of your ownership as stewardship. If you truly have need of something, then keep it, but if it’s something to which you’re simply attached that someone else can use, give it to someone who can use it.
I tend to hold on to things for sentimental reasons. I periodically have to go through and purge these items. Is it wrong to hang on to these things? Not necessarily, but it can often be of spiritual benefit to let them go.
A great way to practice spiritual detachment is to develop the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, courage, and temperance.

Reading Scripture and Devotional Writings

If you do not read scripture regularly, you should. Pope emeritus Benedict XVI once said that ignorance of scripture is ignorance of God. You need to become familiar with scripture to the point that the contexts of scriptural quotes are mostly familiar. For example, if someone mentions the transfiguration, you need to know the story—not necessarily the chapter and verse but the story. Know where in scripture basic events occur.
Remember that scripture is the primary norm of our faith—norm normans non normata. That means the norm that norms all others. While Sacred Tradition is foundational, it can never contradict scripture, nor can the Magisterium. We measure the doctrines of the faith against what is revealed in scripture, even though the understanding of those doctrines often isn’t explicit in scripture.

If you’re new to reading the bible, try a “scripture of the day” email message, and follow up by reading the scripture in context. You might also start reading one chapter daily. I don’t recommend that you start with Genesis, since you might get mired down in the book of Numbers, which is every bit as exciting as the name suggests. I suggest you begin with the gospels, and then go back to Genesis once you’ve had a chance to bathe in the good news.

Get involved with a parish bible study. They are easy to join and easy to sponsor. The Great Bible Adventure series has bible studies running all over our diocese. Pick a parish and check it out.
Also, look to the spiritual giants who have gone before us for inspiration. Read what they wrote and seek to imitate them. For starters, I’ll suggest

  • St. Therese of the Child Jesus—The Story of a Soul
  • St. Thomas Merton—Seven Story Mountain
  • St. Augustine—The Confessions

If you haven’t checked out Magnificat magazine, it’s both a great daily missal and prayer tool and an excellent source for spiritual reflections. Your parishes will likely have subscription programs for it or similar periodicals.

You can also read books about martyrs or saints such as St. Francis of Assisi or St. Edmund Campion. Fr. James Martin has a great book, My Life with the Saints, that describes how numerous saints impacted his life and relationship with Christ. Another eye-opener is Saints Behaving Badly by Thomas Craughwell. Why do I recommend it? Because it reveals how anyone can become a saint. That, after all, is our goal—to be a saint.

Some saints such as St. Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross might be better saved until you’re advanced in your spiritual maturity. I had to come to the humbling realization that I was not ready for them.

Holy Relationship

We should involve ourselves in relationships that help us to grow closer to God, and where we help others to know God. This is really our mission and vocation in life to get to heaven and help others do the same.
When you get married, your new job will be to get your spouse to heaven. When you have children, you have a special responsibility to educate your children so that they will seek heaven. They have to finish that calling themselves, but you have that special responsibility to show them how to live in such a way as to get there. If you have a vocation to the priesthood or religious life, your scope becomes a bit wider.

So if these are the aims of our vocations, doesn’t it make sense that essentially every relationship in some way should direct you and others to Jesus?

So flip around what I said about wrong relationship, and you’ll get a picture of what holy relationship should do:

  • Put God first
  • Treat others with the dignity of a child of God
  • Give others the freedom to do what is right
  • Practice the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love!

Spiritual Direction and Confession

Take advantage of sacramental confession frequently, and find a spiritual director who can help you discern your vocation and help you to grow in the Christian life.

Confession gives you the opportunity to be honest about your limitations and to seek the grace of forgiveness, which also strengthens you in virtue. A nightly examination of conscience will help you to remember those failings daily so you will have something to discuss in the confessional.

You can sometimes get spiritual direction in the confessional, but it’s really not designed for extended direction. For that, you need to find a spiritual director: someone with whom you can meet for longer meetings who can guide you in the spiritual life. You can often have a spiritual director who is also your confessor, although they are really two separate things.

All of us need assistance on the way, and you can do no better than to find a good spiritual director and a good confessor. They can help you to be honest with yourself and to find those areas where you fool yourself. We all do, and it helps to have a loving heart help us to recognize it.

When I was in my second year of diaconal formation, I had a humbling experience. I mentioned to one of my mentors, the wife of a deacon whom I respect tremendously, that I had been praying for humility.
She said, “What on EARTH are you thinking? If you pray for it, you better well expect that God will give it to you.”

She was absolutely right, and really she didn’t mean to say I should strive for humility—just that my timing wouldn’t be very good for a timely ordination. However, humility is one of the characteristics of all saints.
Remember that true humility is not in groveling and denying our natural abilities and gifts but in seeing ourselves as we truly are, especially in relation to our Lord and each other.

Thank you and God bless.