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We used to drive from Atlanta to a lake house in Ontario Canada, which is a drive of 18 hours. There is a point during such a long drive that I would fully settle into the experience. I would cross the Ohio River at Cincinnati and realize I have already been driving for seven hours and I will spend four just in the state of Ohio before getting to Detroit for the crossing into Canada for the last six hours. The miles are clicking on by, but we still have a long way to go. I feel a bit like that at this point in the middle of year two as a Candidate in the formation program.
I have grown mentally and spiritually through this discernment and formation process. But the journey is only about half completed. My job is to take each day the Lord has given me and to use it as best as I can. Perhaps it is not a day but a particular class, or a project within a class. The variety of teachers and styles is rich and diverse. We have had one “repeat” in Fr. Tran, who taught us Logic as Aspirants and is now teaching us Moral and Sacramental Theology. It has been very interesting to interact with him as a Candidate/student, for he seems so much less intimidating than he did when I was an Aspirant. I don’t think he has changed; it has been me who has grown a bit more peaceful and letting the formation process do its work on me.
I have been working with Penny and Jose on how to work in a social justice ministry that is meaningful, for our social justice work should be more than hours in a log sheet. I find myself referring to so many phrases and themes that Deacon Gayle Peters employed during his JustFaith sessions. Like the complementarity of the male and female genders in a marriage relationship, I think I want a social justice ministry that focuses on the complementarity of the two major pillars of social justice: solidarity and subsidiarity. I’m very comfortable as a teacher, and there is such a need for multiple presentations of our social justice teaching, so that is certainly one outlet for me in this area. I also am looking for something that reinforces the core concept of solidarity: we may look different or have different cultural norms, but we are all ultimately the same because we are all God’s children. So I am reaching out to find groups in our diocese that are trying to promote solidarity. Somewhat connected with that, I realize I need to learn Spanish. In my own parish, we are so separated that it almost as though there are two parishes: the Anglo parish and the Latino parish. Maybe it is there that I am called to work on solidarity.
I have been talking with folks at the Chancery about the proper outlet for what my heart seeks in terms of a social justice ministry. Thanks to Ashley Morris and Leslye Colvin, I am being led to work on racial issues. I wonder how we can learn from the past in matters of institutional oppression of selected citizens so that Black Americans’ suffering in the past can have a redemptive quality. I realize that White Americans can be too quick to dismiss the issue as resolved now, 50 years after the Civil Rights Act. At the same time, no Black American today endures anything like what they endured 60 years ago. So how do we joyfully combine the battle won without doing injustice to the difficulty of the battle? How do men and women of different races find solidarity that celebrates their cultural diversity? I think it is another mystery of Christ, and I think it is one I must enter into.
I reflect on the social justice component of our formation process because I see it as a type for my overall formation as a deacon. I thought I knew a thing or two about social justice. I thought I was an official “good guy” for a variety of reasons. I might just have had a bit of pride going on! But God works through my pride and has gently opened my eyes to things I admit now I did not see then. He is gentle but He is a determined teacher. I don’t think this refining process will be limited to one part of our formation. I think God will keep working on me, smoothing out the rough edges, so that I can be a better servant to His people. Each time He opens my eyes a bit more, I see how poorly I see things when I do not rely on Him. In the classroom, in the parish, in extra-parochial apostolates, I find I am learning how much I have yet to learn.
We have a lot of ground yet to cover, and I realize I need every minute of preparation if I am to serve God’s people as they deserve. I am settling into my seat, I am not rushing to cross the finish line, I am trying to learn to see Him more clearly and just let the miles click on by.
We had two classes where the instructor was unable to be present. In both cases, Deacon Jose came in and talked with us about things. It was a gift like that of an elder brother telling his younger brothers a few of the important truths that might not be covered in organized instruction. He listened to the various questions and concerns aired. He offered advice and facilitated our sharing of experiences. As men already identified in our parishes as something slightly different than regular lay volunteers, we are a bit nervous about being unprepared to serve well. One question was how to use “the book,” which meant the Roman Missal. While there is not a class for deacons in formation on “how to use the book,” Jose said that is something we will find a way to cover. He said we could use part of lunch time to go through it.
Later, he spent time in our Liturgy class because Fr. Berny was ill. Again, he talked about what we must do in terms of understanding the rights and responsibilities of each of the instituted orders and eventually the ordained role of deacon. He pointed out that we must exercize our offices and duties but never forget our call to obedience and service, so we must work with our pastors and the various entrenched lay leaders with great charity and joy. It was refreshing to hear acknowledgment of some of the pressures and stresses men in formation have expressed to each other but are not covered in a classroom setting. Deacon Jose spoke with love, so there was no judgment, but there was great encouragement in what he said and how he said it.
Our teachers are a mix of laymen, priests, deacons and religious, and each vocation brings to the classroom valuable perspective and experience. Jose’s sharing and leadership was something wonderful: unexpected, full of love, full of encouragement, challenging, and something we should emulate to those who come after us. I need to be encouraging and helpful to the men in formation behind me, and if I am finally ordained as a deacon in the future I must return to share with the men in formation. This is “tradition” in practice: the children of God handing on to the next group what was handed on to them. Thanks to Jose’s gift of time and energy, I have a graphic example of “tradition” implanted in my memory.
Every now and then comes along a news item that seems to justify Martin Luther’s conception of man as “snow-covered piles of dung.” To wit, British hospital trusts used dead babies’ bodies to heat their hospital buildings.
The bodies of thousands of aborted and miscarried babies were incinerated as clinical waste, with some even used to heat hospitals, an investigation has found. Ten NHS trusts have admitted burning foetal remains alongside other rubbish while two others used the bodies in ‘waste-to-energy’ plants which generate power for heat.
Even in “beyond the pale” stories like this one, however, the internal human orientation toward the divine law can be revealed:
Last night the Department of Health issued an instant ban on the practice which health minister Dr Dan Poulter branded ‘totally unacceptable.’
One hopes Dr. Dan finds the practice totally unacceptable on the basis of morality rather than on the basis of being newsworthy. Western culture is so far gone, we cannot know for sure.
The full story is here.
It was necessary for the people of Israel to endure dispersion and exile before they fully embraced the exclusivity demanded by their God. At the head of the Ten Commandments received as part of the Covenant established on Mt. Sinai in the desert after the Passover and flight from Egypt was the statement that “You shall not have other gods besides me.” [Ex 20:3] This was followed by an explanation: “For I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God, inflicting punishment for their fathers’ wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation.” [Ex 20:5]
It indeed took many generations for this understanding of exclusivity to be fully embraced by the people with whom the covenant had been established. We have read of the repeated patterns of embrace of Yahweh, admixture with local pagan worship, and decline into social and political disarray.
The difficulty in accepting the fullness of God was not unique to the Israelites. In my own life, I needed many blows before I understood that God was with me, and that He was the only thing on which I could really depend. My personal pagan admixture was alcohol, and my salvific exile was Alcoholics Anonymous.
My understanding of God was insufficiently developed as I lived the years of high school and college, grappling with all the social issues that accompany that stage of life. When I turned, as many do at that age, to alcohol to address my problems, my problems only increased. God was at that time something of a “Monday morning quarterback,” for his voice seemed limited to telling me what I should have done. He always seemed to speak in the past tense and with a tone of remonstration.
AA tries to avoid sectarian difficulties by speaking of a “higher power” instead of God, and this phrasing is often accompanied by a statement to the effect that one can have a doorknob be his higher power if that is what works for him. Given that blank canvas, I drew for myself a God who was with me on Saturday night when choices were being made instead of absent until Monday morning for the game of blame and consequences.
This higher power turned out to be the Triune God of Scripture and Tradition, who was, is, and ever will be with me. I could not see Him, however, without my own personal exile in the Babylon of bourbon and beer. Returning home, my relationship with Him has been ever-deepened and ever-expanded because I am no longer confused about what He looks like.
Today’s Gospel reading is Luke 10:38-42, in which we see Martha “who was distracted with all the serving and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself?’” We are often called to consider what Jesus meant in his replay, “It is Mary who has chosen the better part; it is not to be taken from her.”
Jesus did not mean to prefer contemplative study over service work. He meant to convey that everything should be contemplative. Sweeping or sitting, we are in the presence of God. The connection we make with Him while we do whatever it is that we do is the purpose of our existence. We are made to be with Him. That is what Heaven is.
So do not fall into the either/or trap offered by a misreading of this vignette from Luke’s gospel. Be Mary while you are sweeping and be Martha while you are sitting. It is our hearts Jesus wants.
Music at Mass is such a challenge because for those involved in the music program it is their best prayer to God while for those in the pews it is anything from a deep prayer to just another noise during the liturgy. That being said, it seems to me the goal for the music team is to find that which is appropriately pastoral, reverent, and orthodox.
Pastoral means the music should be something the sheep in the pews can sing even though they did not go to Wednesday evening rehearsal or major in music at college. Many of the golden oldies are what they are because they march along in predictable fashion. One may or may not like the Eucharistic song, “I am the bread of life,” but one cannot deny that irregular hymn is difficult to sing when 700 folks are supposed to sing it together. Pastoral also means songs that resonate with the sheep in the pews, so some of the golden oldies are not so golden for the not-so-oldies. (Bread was an objectively inferior music group from the early 1970s, but even a Bread song is still an old friend to someone coming of age then. Perhaps Haugen’s “Gather us In” is an analog for Catholics of a certain age.)
Reverence is a combination of words and tune and rhythm. I noticed at a Presbyterian wedding that their hymnal included “On Eagles’ Wings” but chose to change the words from “I will raise you up” to “God will raise you up” because of the traditional reluctance to sing as though you are God. Tune and rhythm work together, with the challenge being that a song that reminds everyone of something they heard on the radio (e.g., the “Cat Stevens” hymn) or on Broadway may pull them away from the liturgy rather than into it. Part of the appeal of Latin and chant is that you will never hear it on SiriusXM and that “other-ness” helps you meet our entirely “other” God in the Mass.
Orthodoxy sometimes runs into poetic license, the most common instance that comes to mind is the objection to the “when we eat this bread and drink this cup” response to the mysterium fide. We, of course, will not eat bread but the body of Christ. Perhaps the writer wanted only one syllable; not every deviation from orthodoxy is fully intentional.
Pastoral, reverent, orthodox music can be played in a variety of styles and by a variety of instruments. My favorite hymn is “Let all Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” because I love the delicate tune, the ancient words and the poetic translation by Gerard Moultrie. But I also love a song written by a local composer who directs the modern music ensemble in our parish, an equally delicate tune tied to ancient words but set for guitar, piano and woodwind: “If a Single Grain of Wheat Shall Fall,” by Ken Macek. There is more than one way to direct the faithful heavenward through music.
Most of us when we read Luke 14:24 wonder how to respond to the words of Jesus because they sound so harsh. “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
Jesus left us no escape route. The Fourth Commandment is to honor your father and mother, but Jesus wants us to hate them if we want to be his disciple. We know that a man leaves his father and mother and cleave himself to his wife and they become one flesh, but we are now told to hate our wives. Jesus has told us if anyone should cause the little ones to fall, it would be better for him to have a millstone put around his neck and be cast into the abyss, but now we are to hate our children. The second great commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves but now we should hate even our own lives.
What are we to do with this verse?
One thing a verse life this reminds us is that we must reflect on any verse within the context of the whole message of the Gospel as recorded in the scriptures, discussed by the Church Fathers, and guarded by the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. If a single verse contradicts the totality of the Gospel, then we must consider it in a different light. We have not yet fully comprehended its meaning. In the case of this verse from the Gospel according to St. Luke, Jesus’ use of the word hate must not mean what we think of today when we use that word.
In fact, Jesus clarifies his intention in the next verse: Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.
Discipleship requires discipline. We know this to be true in earthly endeavors, but sometimes we are reluctant to apply it to our heavenly efforts. As the football season gets going in the U.S., we are sure to hear a coach after a game say something like, “The game was not won on the field this Friday night but in the weight room and on the practice field all those hot summer days.” Those of us who never played football just gape dumbfounded at the work football players put into their sport. But the players nod their heads knowingly.
Our lives in Christ have their own analogues to the weights and practice drills of football. Our weights are the cross, and like weights the cross comes in many variations. Our drills are the drills of self-control, and like the drills of football they come in many variations. We don’t do Oklahomas. We do “turn the other cheeks.” We practice patience even we have none left. We drill on acts of service and words of encouragement. These are the drills and routines that ensure we “win” in the game of Heaven.
Our win in the game of heaven will look like the change St. Paul marks in the man named Onesimus in the Epistle to Philemon. St. Paul sends Onesimus back “that you might have him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you.” We are Onesimus. We were slaves to death. After a life of discipleship in Christ, Jesus sends us back to the Father as brothers, beloved brothers.
Our journey home will have been won in the hard slog of daily living, of discipleship in the life of Christ.
For the readings, please see this link: 23rd Sunday Ordinary Time Year C Readings PDF
Ordinary Time, the season in the Church calendar we are currently celebrating, is a chance to practice our faith and grow in Christ over a lengthy sequence of Sundays. We have Ordinary Time between the two sets of seasons that celebrate our faith’s two great claims: the Advent/Christmas time of preparation for and celebration of the claim that the Word became Flesh, and the Lent/Easter time of preparation for and celebration of the claim that God offered himself in a holy sacrifice that conquered Death and redeemed us. The ordinary time is there for us to digest the meaning and implications of those two great claims.
Christians generally understand the Scriptures as the inerrant word of God who inspired human authors, and we have in the three readings for this Sunday different authors and literary styles addressing different audiences on the same subject: humility and pride.
When it comes to the subject of pride or humility, we need many ways to learn because humility is so elusive and pride is so familiar. In the reading from St. Luke’s Gospel, Jesus advises his listeners to take a lower seat so that they might be asked to move to a better seat rather than assume a more prestigious seat only to suffer the humiliation of being asked to move down. He ties these acts to the final judgment in in pair of freighted lines: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Later in the story, Jesus tells his host to invite diners who will be unable to return the favor, and he promises, “For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews draws a sharp distinction between the two possible eternal destinations. On the one hand, “a voice speaking such words that those who heard begged that no message be further addressed to them.” On the other hand, “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” Our choices over minor matters do eventually add up to a choice for or against God. And He respects our choice.
Humility is a challenge for us because it is not something we can effect directly. Humility is a result of something else. That something else is a combination of gratitude and obedience. Pride is the opposite of gratitude and obedience, for pride says we deserve what we have and insists that we must not answer to any authority outside of ourselves. The Book of Sirach is one of the Wisdom books written in Greek a few hundred years before Christ. Sirach gives the good advice to not let your grasp exceed your reach. “What is too sublime for you, seek not, into things beyond your strength search not.” Humility is the man who accepts his limitations; pride is the man who does not. Humility is the man who is happy to be invited to the dinner; pride is the man assessing the status of his assigned seat. Humility is the host who invites guests who cannot repay him; pride is the host who expects a return invitation. Humility gives and accepts gifts; pride is all about trades.
If we spend our time in thanksgiving, we will develop an attitude of gratitude and be half-way to humility. The second half is obedience, something that is much easier when we are grateful. Obedience is an action step we can take, and we can obey even in those moments when gratitude has escaped us. God accepts the objective gift of obedience, just as he accepts the subjective gift of gratitude. How Heaven peals in joy when we offer both together.
Gratitude and obedience are habits we can form through practice. Something as simple as a quick list of things for which we are thankful that we can recite at the beginning and end of the day. The obedience of doing our daily prayers even when we are tired or in a hurry. Not every stallion took to the saddle and bridle easily, so we proud human beings should not be surprised if changing our habits to conform with God’s plan creates some internal friction. If we fight through it, we will discover we are changed people. Changing our habits changed us.
It is a changed us that Jesus calls to be with him in Heaven for ever.
For the readings, please see this link: 22nd Sunday Ordinary Time Year C Readings PDF
The readings this week remind us that Jesus brings the gospel to all who will deign to receive it with humility. The Israelites are warned by Isaiah that God will find other nations if Israel will not serve him, the letter to the Hebrews warns them not to disdain the discipline of the Lord, and Jesus warns his audience that many will attempt to enter the Kingdom of Heaven but will not be strong enough. Depending on how we read these selections from the Bible, we can react with hurt feelings that sweet Jesus doesn’t soften the words spoken by an Old Testament prophet like Isaiah.
So, let’s not read them as a harsh statement of how narrow the gate is and how many will turned away by a fierce judge who says, “depart from me, evildoers.” Let’s think back over the past thirty years of all the trophies we and our children won for participation. As much as the little children liked the shiny plastic baseball player swinging his bat atop a foot-tall pedestal, we knew it didn’t count for much. As the child grew older, the reality of the amount of effort began to be something we could not hide, and they had to face the reality that the varsity jacket in high school was given only to those who earned it. Along the way, we probably dealt with the reaction by the child, “But Mom and Dad, I tried!” Sometimes the complaint was not supported by the evidence.
There is trying, and then there is really trying. Sports is full of cliches to capture the difference: “the runner dug deep and beat the throw to first base,” or “the loose ball will be won by the guy who wants it more.” This is the message of the scriptures today. The Promise is given to all who really want it, to those who will remain faithful through thick and thin, to those who will accept admonishment and correction, to those who really want to get through the narrow gate. This is the message of Isaiah, of Paul, and of Jesus.
The message is not “woe to you all, it is just about impossible.” That is the distorted message being peddled by the Tempter. The message of Jesus and the prophets is “keep on keeping on.” Can we earn our way into heaven, as Pelagius suggested in the fifth century? No, St. Augustine explained, we actually depend on God’s love even for the impulse to do good, and only by his free gift of himself do we have any hope of salvation. But we are not jellyfish that just float where the current takes us. We have wills and we have control of our bodies and minds. As the deep thinker Dr. Seuss put it:
You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
Jesus stands athwart human history as a beacon to guide us as we make our choices and exert ourselves. He is the narrow gate. He has given us helps that will bring us back to the narrow path to the narrow gate. The Catholic Church understands in the Sacrament of Reconciliation the power of confession, absolution, and penance. Other Christian faith traditions have similar informal practices of self-reflection, sharing, re-commitment, and renewal. If St. Paul got knocked off his horse, who are we to think we won’t? So Jesus gives us a way to keep on keeping on, to understand what it means “to try.”
When we say something along the lines of “We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets” (Lk 13:26), Jesus will look at us as we looked at our children who claimed to be “trying.” He challenges us why we would be eating and drinking when in his Presence, he questions how seriously we listen when he is teaching in our streets. He once told busy, busy Martha that contemplative Mary had chosen the better part. Sometimes the Christian message is, “Don’t just do something, stand there!”
All of us have more than once been in a worship service while our minds wandered far from the subject at hand. A half-hearted effort is not going to make the cut. We have to give him our very best. We have to do it over and over, and this is how we will “make straight paths for our feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.” (Heb 12:13) Our trophy is the Cross, and it is made out of Love rather than plastic.
For the readings, please see this link: 21st Sunday Ordinary Time Year C Readings PDF