The reality of salvation

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“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What’s water?’” This story is how the writer David Foster Wallace began a speech after warning his audience that he is not the wise older fish, he’s just telling the story because you have to start speeches off with something clever. The point of the parable, though, is that the greatest realities are often the hardest to see and talk about.

Back in the 16th century, theologians were busy arguing. Martin Luther, at that time a Catholic Augustinian monk, had managed to get some traction for his idea of salvation by faith alone, and the movement that lined up behind that belief hit Christendom like a bolt of lightning. This wasn’t a dry, abstract question. It had real life consequences and affected government and taxes and set nations against each other. Even more, if we really take our faith seriously, we can see how the question touches on the actual nature of the human soul, so it could have become quite contentious.

St. James is clear that faith without works is dead. From that statement we understand that faith can either be alive or dead, so along with faith it is clear we need something else.. It is not salvation by faith alone. We need our belief to be united with the presence of the living God. In the end, to believe in salvation by faith alone is very cynical, because it means that God never effects a change in you – once a sinner always a sinner. Maybe you’re a sinner who has faith and is on the way to heaven, and that’s nice, but you are still the same old, unhappy, imperfect person. I’m not quite sure what salvation means if that’s all it is. God wants more for us than that.

The reality of salvation is very simple, it’s like the water that fish swim in, and for that reason it is all the more difficult to explain, because how do you explain what it is to be spiritually alive? With Jesus, we go from death to life, and I have no idea how to express it because when I was dead, before the lights went on, everything was simply dark. There is no formula to explain our relationship with God. It’s sort of how, guys, when your wife wants to mess with you and she demands that you explain why you love her. You stammer a few things like her beautiful eyes that light up your life and her laugh that sounds like a babbling brook, I don’t know, some romantic stuff, but in the end love between husband and wife is way more than that. It is a mysterious intermingling of souls.

That is exactly what salvation is. God has given everything at the Cross, and in return he wants all of you. He unites himself to you. He infuses your soul with virtue, what St. Paul identifies as Faith, Hope, and Love. It isn’t faith alone. It is faith, united to hope, and the greatest is love. These three virtues change the shape of your soul to make it receptive to grace. It isn’t a matter of believing the right things, or saying the right stuff, because it is by grace that our hearts are converted to the very core.

The cross must wound your heart. You must be prepared to follow Christ all the way, anything less, any turning aside, is a temptation of Satan. This is exactly what Our Lord says, that he will suffer for us and there is no other way. Why? Because love does not allow for compromises. We’re either in or we’re out.

No one is saved alone. We are saved with each other and for each other. We celebrate with each other and suffer with each other because God’s infusion of love knits us together. We see that clearly in the Precious Body and Blood of Jesus, which is the sacrament of unity. It is so difficult to explain, to understand, or anticipate. The reality is one which must be lived. We must actually receive the body and blood of Christ on our tongues.

We often interpret Our Lord’s command to take up our Cross in a negative sense, as if he’s simply telling us to toughen up and keep going. But that command has a positive interpretation. He is telling us to throw our whole selves into the salvation of the world, to live the reality of the Body of Christ to its fullness. Surround yourselves in this reality daily. Don’t take it for granted, for we are together being drawn ever closer to Heaven, and even if we can’t explain it, we know how to get there through practicing our faith. We hope for it daily. But the reality? The reality is love, and he who is filled with love is filled with God himself.

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Sin is boring

download (3)G.K. Chesterton, the Catholic writer responsible for Fr. Brown and many very challenging books on theology, was not always a Christian. Growing up at the turn of the 20th century in England, he was a skeptic, and in his autobiography he writes that as a young man he considered priests to be, “feebleminded,” and uninteresting (that stings a bit).

Chesterton was an intellectual and spent many evenings in dinner clubs in London where men would get together and debate various topics. Often, priests would attend these meetings. Chesterton writes about how as he listened to these priests debate, they surprised him. He says, “In debate after debate I noticed the same thing happen…it was the feebleminded clergyman…who showed all the advantages of having been tolerably trained in some sort of system of thinking. Dreadful seeds of doubt began to be sown in my mind. I was almost tempted to question the accuracy of the anticlerical legend.” He began to befriend these priests, and he noticed that they were different than other men. Most intellectual, young men are world-weary, these priests were colorful and eccentric and interesting.

I had a similar experience when I became Catholic. I was astounded at the number of really interesting, amazing people I was meeting. I had all these really hard questions that were going to stump the priests in RCIA but they always answered them simply, so simply that for a long time it failed to register with me how intelligent Catholic theology is. These priests were also interesting and thoughtful – sorry you got stuck with me and not one of them – those are the breaks, I guess.

All my life, I had thought that the really interesting people were celebrities, movie stars with crazy outfits walking into movie premiers, musicians who stayed up all night producing works of genius, rebellious individualists who threw aside convention. These are the sort of people who, when you ask what they’re rebelling against, reply, “What’ve you got?” Brando, obviously. And I’m not singling those people out, they’re probably pretty interesting. But over time, you begin to see how a lot of what is held out to us as being stereotypically glamorous and daring is really all the same. The Bachelor has made romance boring. Movies that are supposed to be shocking turn out to be just kind of blah. Artwork that is going to change the whole way we look at the world turns out to be some paint dripped on a canvas. Politicians say the same mottos over and over again and promise the world but then deliver almost nothing. It’s all boring.

G.K. Chesterton began to be bored with not believing in God. He found that without any principles to hold onto that lasted beyond this world everything was drab and wearying. With no God who was beauty itself, nothing on earth could be beautiful. With no moral ideals to reach for, his life lacked challenge. All the atheists who were debating in his clubs were clever and could talk and talk, but it was the priests who said the simple truth – and that was very exciting.

We could define sin in any number of ways. It’s missing the mark. It’s transgressing God’s law. It is rebellion. It is also very boring.

In the New Testament there is a Greek word – and this is one of the rare times I’ll go into professor mode and define a Greek word for you, so take note – okay, the Greek word is, “sozo.” That same word is translated into English as two different words: Heal and Save. So, when Our Lord heals a person, that physical healing is linked with salvation, the healing of the soul, which is why Jesus often forgives sins and physical healing happens as a result. When we read about healings, we can always read them in the context of salvation, sin, and forgiveness.

We have this deaf, speechless man; we don’t want to link his illness with his own personal sin, as if he did something wrong and is being punished, but certainly illness in a general sense is a result of original sin. So we see in him the results of sin. His world was smaller than it should have been. He was limited. This is how we might say that sin is boring, it dampens our senses and detracts from the fullness of who we are.

Even beyond this, I can tell you that we all sin alike. People seem to have this misconception that their sin is worse and different than everyone else’s. It really isn’t. Sin repeats the same behaviors, over and over, until we are captive to it. It is a negation of life and over time devolves into a caricature. We feel a rush of rebellion the first time, so we do it again but the feeling isn’t the same, so we try a third time, and then after a while we’re sinning not because we like it but because we’re in the grip of a vice and are powerless to stop. And the real kicker is that, when we sin, we fall into a bland, sameness. We sin just the same way everyone else has always sinned and we get the same results. Every day, the rebellion reduces us and causes us to miss so much.

For instance, St. James has to chastise his readers because they’ve been showing undue partiality to the rich and wealthy in their churches. Their greed and idolatry of wealth is a sinful attitude that blinds them. They are failing to look at the actual human being, how interesting and amazing each person is, and are judging them by the most boring, irrelevant fact about them – how much money is in their bank account.

This is why God looks to the heart, that’s where all the good stuff is. I think that God is fascinated but our potential. For him, nothing about us is uninteresting. This is why Jesus spends time with the colorful, oddball people he encounters. He wants to set us free from sin so that we can become uniquely ourselves, so that our world will become so much bigger and full of love and life and energy.

Leave sin behind. Seek Jesus every day. He is the arrival of new life, like springs of water bursting forth in the desert. Jesus never gets tired of life. He is life. The simple fact that we have been brought out of darkness, that we have been created, and then re-created in the image of Christ and set on the path to heaven – that is the most amazing news. We are healed, and we are saved.

What is righteous anger?

download (4)The scriptures are written in a narrative style that doesn’t examine inner motivations or emotions, and St. Mark simply records that the Pharisees ask Jesus all these questions that seem innocent enough. Look at the text closely, though, and the type of response they draw from Our Lord, and it becomes clear that the Pharisees are in the midst of inner turmoil. The questions aren’t as naive as they seem, and if we put ourselves in their place it becomes clear that they’re motivated by fear, distrust, and anger. They fear that Jesus is changing everything, that they’ll lose their place of leadership in this new religious community. They distrust that he is who he says he is and that his leadership will be good for the people. And because of all this, they are angry.

A little-known detail about the early Church is that many of the first converts to the Church were Pharisees. Much of what we see in the scriptures, though, are the confrontations with Jesus and they’ve come to be seen as the bad guys, but the story is more complex. Later, we know that some them persecuted the Church, but others became faithful Christians. St. Paul is our example of both. He was initially a great persecutor but also one of the Pharisees who eventually converted.

As I think back over the past few weeks and the current state of the Church, it is colored by one particular emotion – Anger. I’m not generally an angry person, my vice is actually the tendency to quietly disengage. We all get angry, though. Which of us hasn’t uttered a profanity at another driver on the road or felt our blood pressure go up when we see the wrong politician on the news. Which of us hasn’t been angry at the government, at our children, at our parents, our friends.

Here’s what we need to sort out, when is anger good and when is it bad?

There are times we should be angry. For instance, in response to the betrayal of the Church by her own priests. In a similar scenario, Our Lord displays anger very famously when he purifies the Temple. The Psalms are positively brimming with anger in certain sections. We should burn with zeal to protect the House of the Lord.

Other times, anger opens the door to sin. If you have children, for example, you may know the feeling of losing your temper when your toddler has dropped a dish on the ground and at the same time the baby is screaming and you just had a hard day at work. You yell and punish, feel better for a moment, and then the guilt sets in.

The Pharisees are a good entry point for understanding the difference between healthy and unhealthy anger.

The ones who doubled down on their anger closed their ears to the Gospel. They helped to crucify Our Lord. They persecuted the Church. They thought only of themselves, their own status, and how to protect the pharisaical system at any cost. They failed to listen to the voice of God and anger took over their lives.

Other Pharisees, however, were angry with a righteous motive. They were upset because Jesus can be kind of upsetting. He turns our lives upside down, he challenges us, he makes us re-evaluate. For them, this initially caused anger because they were genuinely worried that Jesus was transgressing the will of God. But because their anger was righteous and they were truly seeking God, they eventually saw the truth, gave up their anger, and were converted. This, in my experience is typical with converts. A lot of converts in the years before their entry into the Church will speak negatively of the Church. This isn’t because they hate the Church; it’s because they really, really love Jesus and their emotions are in turmoil as they are being challenged and provoked, so they put up defenses. As they stay faithful and wrestle with the Gospel, those defenses collapse and they’re ready to come home to the Church.

So how do we know when our anger is righteous and when it is a sin? Here are three characteristics of righteous anger.

First, righteous anger is directed at sin, not people. We are allowed to hate sin! We should hate sin! We should hate everything about it, particularly in ourselves and in the Church. Jesus is very clear about this especially with our leaders. Your priests should hate sin and seek holiness. If we are wishing that certain clergy are burning in hell, that’s unhealthy. But if we wish that they would experience a great downfall from a place of influence and then through a lifetime of penance achieve the lowest rung of purgatory, now we’re closer to where we need to be. If we are angry for justice, and for the eradication of evil, that is righteous anger.

Second, righteous anger is God-centered. If I am angry on my own behalf, angry that my taxes went up, angry that traffic is bad and it’s unfair, angry that the price for popcorn at the movie theater is, like, eight hundred dollars per tub. Those are self-centered motives. That sort of anger festers in the soul, turns us in on ourselves, and creates profound unhappiness. Righteous anger is always on behalf of God and his kingdom.

Third, righteous anger combines with other virtues. It isn’t good to simply be angry with no purpose. That accomplishes nothing. Righteous anger provokes us to action. It causes us to ruthlessly eradicate a sin in our own lives that we hate. It gives us courage to speak up, to make a difficult decision, it motivates us to see the problem and become a part of the solution. It is full of hope and it draws us deeper into solidarity and community with each other, and it spurs us on to prayer and penance. The anger itself is temporary and resolves itself in a virtue.

When I think about those three criteria, I realize that typically we are angry for the wrong reasons which is why the Scriptures warn us not to give into it. The virtue that combats anger is meekness, so when we find that we are angry in an unhealthy way, we must humble ourselves to realize that we aren’t the center of the universe and let go of that anger. But there are times when anger is directed towards a good purpose. When that happens, consider well what goal you can set before you and what positive changes can arise from it.

In the end, St. Paul, a man who at one point in his life was full of anger, has the last word,

“Therefore let all anger and indignation… be put away from you…And be ye kind to one another, merciful and forgiving, even as God hath forgiven you in Christ…And walk in love, as Christ also loved us and delivered Himself for us as an oblation and a sacrifice to God for an odor of sweetness.”

When it’s humiliating to be Catholic

BL Miguel Pro5Many years ago, I promised to God that I would be steadfast in wearing my cassock in public so that people I encounter in random places will see a priest, very clearly and with no mistake. That is a priest over there sipping a cup of coffee. That is a priest putting an entire gallon of chocolate milk in his grocery cart along with five frozen meat-lovers pizzas (that can’t be healthy).

A priest is a living, breathing symbol, and the fact that priests walk this earth is a sign of God’s friendship. It is no more about me as an individual than the miracle of the loaves and fishes is about any individual person. It is an outpouring of grace. People need to encounter that, to know that priests are around, that they are in the midst of ordinary life like leaven in bread. Often, people will approach me and say good morning, or ask for a blessing, or ask me to pray for their dying grandmother.

And if this was all it meant to wear a cassock in public, I would gladly do so, but in fact there are days when I am not so glad about it. There are days the cassock is a burden and people look at me with suspicion, because in the midst of scandal and abuse and sin within the priesthood, and you may have heard this in the news by now, there are priests out there who have darkened our reputation considerably.

Even so, these discomforts are essentially nothing when compared with the effects of abuse on those who have endured it.

I thought a lot about this homily. I’m sad that I must give it, but I feel and our Archbishop feels that it is important that we talk about this. I’m a father, too, and this is a homily that if I was sitting in the pews, I would want to hear. For those of you who don’t know this, because I am a convert I am one of several hundred Catholic priests who are married and I have six children. My first reaction to these revelations was born of, let’s call it a father’s righteous anger, and is not very appropriate to share from a pulpit. It’s okay to be angry.

The saints were used to being humiliated. They were laughed at, thrown out of town, physically attacked, thrown to wild animals to be torn apart, and burned like torches for garden parties. Christians have been forced to kneel in the dirt while one by one their heads were chopped off because they loved Jesus. The saints have often done penance of their own, fasting and praying and living in the desert. We choose this because we love Jesus. We choose to be here this morning. It is our choice that places us at odds with the world and causes Satan to attack us. These attacks from without we bear up against.

But it really hurts when the attack comes from within, when the Body of Christ is weighed down like there’s a millstone around our neck and we are drowning, when the shepherds have become the wolves, when the Church is dragged through the mud, when representatives of the Church ravage her with such darkness that we can hardly believe it. It rattles our faith. It leaves victims.

We must, and I feel this needs to be said, we must name this scandal for what it is. It is sin. It is the result of a rejection of God’s design for human sexuality. We have two good, life-giving, spiritually fulfilling avenues for how we use our bodies. It is either to love each other within our marriages totally open to the possibility of life and children, or it is to conquer our temptations with the virtue of chastity. When priests break their vows of celibacy, in this case mostly because of same-sex attraction to young men, we have a huge problem. This is a problem that reflects a culture that has long ago rejected chastity and a Church that has been infiltrated with those ideas. The only way to solve this issue is to rededicate ourselves to holiness in regards to the human body. This scandal has been caused by the rebellion of clergy against Church teaching. They fell into a sub-culture that is damaging in every sense of the word because there is no healthy expression of physical love outside of marriage. The teaching of Our Lord on the sanctity of marriage is not an artificial restriction on our freedom, it is the path to dignity and happiness in the face of physical temptations.

This is challenging to say but the Gospel is often offensive. It holds us accountable and places before us Heaven or Hell. When we water down Church teaching, we end up with a less offensive but more sinful Church. The priests are unworthy. The laity go home starving for the truth.

I want to mention that the Archdiocese of St. Louis has strict guidelines at our seminary. All seminarians go through a psychological exam and their everyday activities are observed and evaluated by lay professors and psychologists. In addition, the Archdiocese’s child protection practices were evaluated by a member of the FBI just last year and found to be thorough. We have a strong, holy Archbishop who is vigilant in keeping us safe, and he has even invited the attorney general of Missouri to evaluate us. His transparency can give us confidence. As for me, I am scrupulous when it comes to interacting with children. If any of these issues surrounding abuse have stirred up any unrelated, lingering trauma from the past, you can call our office confidentially and we will refer you to a therapist.

In the end, all I can do is return to the reasons I love the Church. She is our spiritual mother, and it is here that we are saved. She will endure no matter who tries to harm her, and she remains pure and chaste. As upset as I am, St. Peter says it best, “To whom else would we go?” Judas cannot drive us away from Jesus. If that happens, Satan wins. This is where Jesus is, and he is the only answer to human brokenness.

The strength of the Church is in the people. It is in you.

Children, you are the future. This is your Church. If you want to come to Mass, you force your parents to bring you. Don’t let them off the hook.

Parents, we have a great example today in St. Louis, who as a father taught his son virtue and to rely on God’s grace. Teach your children the fullness of the Catholic faith. Don’t water it down. Teach them about the sanctity of marriage and the heroic sacrifices of love, that we don’t have to settle for the degradation of the human body that we see in pop culture. Stay involved, tell them about the saints, read them Bible stories. Let them ask you hard questions. Be an example for them. It is from you that they form their personal identity and develop strength of character.

Please pray for priests, encourage them, and help them. Without priests, there is no Eucharist. If love is a fire, pray that a fire of repentance and penance flows through the priesthood.

Build our Catholic culture. It is a beautiful culture! I am proud to be Catholic and a member of this parish. I have known parishioners who have driven down the highway to retrieve another parishioner and bring her to mass in her wheelchair. We have parishioners who regularly help our Deacon so that he is able to come to Mass. I’ve seen entire families come to confession together. There are people here who come to Mass every single day. You are all an inspiration.

This is all to say that, even if we are angry right now, our anger is a sign of hope. St. Augustine says, “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are and the courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”

Now is the time to be courageous and rebuild the Church. Even in darkness, Jesus shines brightest.

On foolishness and wisdom

Bartolomé_Esteban_Murillo-_Brother_Juniper_and_the_BeggarSt. Paul says that to those who are not believers, the Gospel seems to be foolishness, but in the eyes of God it is actually the wisdom of the world that is foolishness. It’s funny how the exact same word can have opposite meanings to different people. One person’s foolishness is another person’s wisdom.

The saints long ago realized they were going to be mocked, so they began ironically to proclaim that they were fools for Christ. For instance, Saint Juniper was known for taking the doctrine of the Franciscans to the extreme. Francis himself famously renounced his inheritance, took all his clothes off so he had not a single possession, and disappeared into the wilderness to pray. This was a bit extreme even for the men who admired and gathered around Francis, but Juniper had a very literal mind, so whenever anyone asked for any of his possessions, he freely gave them away, including his clothes. His fellow Franciscans strictly forbade him from giving away his clothes anymore, and wanting to obey, Juniper once told a man in need that he couldn’t give the man his tunic, but he wouldn’t prevent the man from taking it. In time, the friars learned not to leave anything lying around, because he would find it and give it away.

Was Juniper a fool? The Church thinks he’s s a saint.

So, what is foolishness?

St. Paul gives us a rundown. Foolishness is dissipation, wasting our lives on inconsequential concerns, wasting our energy in unimportant ways. He warns against letting the days overwhelm us, and by this I think he means the way in which often we simply go with the flow and don’t examine our actions and motivations. We simply do this, then do that. We react thoughtlessly and end up gossiping or saying something rude before we even realize what we’re doing. Our lives slip away out of our control, and this is foolishness. We forget that God is with us at every moment, that he is the creator of the day and our very selves, and when we acknowledge him through prayer and daily scripture reading, it makes us happier. It is foolish to reject happiness simply because it is easier to be unhappy.

The book of Proverbs also has insight into what it means to be foolish. Foolishness is intellectualism with no relation to truth. I wonder what Solomon would have thought if he had seen an internet chatroom or facebook thread, because there are lots of people there with lots of strongly held opinions, who pride themselves on being very clever, but when we get like that it is often the case that we don’t actually know what we’re talking about! We love to think we are smart, but we haven’t studied enough and aren’t humble enough to actually hear the truth. Being smart and having understanding of truth are two different states of life. Often, the people who are most humble and quiet have the most understanding. The people who talk loudest, who love to argue, who love to question but don’t actually seek answers, those are the people who are foolish. Truth requires patience and effort to grasp, but it is simple, and realistic, and fitting. I’m not protestant anymore, for instance, because I just wasn’t smart enough to continue making arguments against the Catholic Church. Her wisdom is simple, practical, and very much fits with human nature.

That’s foolishness – I confess I see a bit of myself reflected in there – What is wisdom?

Wisdom is seeking the will of God, because a wise person recognizes that God is a faithful, reliable guide to truth. Wisdom is being filled with the Holy Spirit, because the Spirit reveals to us inner truths about ourselves. He helps us to understand our emotions and our spiritual state. Wisdom is encouraging each other and practicing gratitude because when we see the best in each other and in all things, we see more truly who they really are. When we are cynical and critical, we fixate and justify to ourselves what it is that is wrong and that line of thought deviates from reality. When we seek the best in others, we begin to love them, and it is those who love who have the truest insight. Wisdom is also, according to St. Paul, developing a creative artistic outlook. He says to sing hymns and pray the poetry of the Psalms That one is a bit unexpected but it makes sense once we think about it. It doesn’t mean you have to go out and buy paints or become a poet, although that would be great if you did, but it’s more the habit of always searching for the inner truth and beauty present in the world just like an artist does, to search for God’s hidden presence in everyday life. This is why we sing the Mass and have beautiful vestments and stained glass windows, because through their beauty they reveal truths about God. Finally, wisdom is joyful. Wise people celebrate life, because this anticipates heavenly joy and heaven is the underlying reality of our entire existence.

In the end, the way to be wise is to draw as close to Jesus as possible. He is the source of wisdom.

Very simple people with very little natural intellectual ability are sources of great wisdom, St. John Vianney, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Juniper, because they lived in the presence of Christ. That’s why the saints are our best source of instruction about the faith and about life. They have wisdom beyond that of anyone else. Their lives may seem foolish to people who think that wisdom is joining the rat race, getting a huge bank account, working all day, scheming for social advancement, getting a giant house, and obsessing over power, but who is really wise? The saint without a shirt on his back who loves his life or a miserable person overworked and alone in a mansion?

If any of us were to be offered two options, to be foolish or wise, we all know which we would choose, right? We want wisdom. We want the truth. St. Augustine points out the obvious when he says, “What does our soul desire more passionately than truth?” The way to gain it is right before our eyes.

Here’s the link between our first two readings about Wisdom and the Gospel about the Bread of Life.

In the sacrament of the altar, the Lord meets us, becomes our companion, truly becomes food for us to satisfy our hunger for truth and freedom. Since only wisdom can make us free, Christ becomes for us the food of truth. We have an innate desire for ultimate and definitive truth. Jesus is, “the way, the truth, and the life.” He speaks to our thirsting, pilgrim hearts, our hearts yearning for the source of life, our hearts longing for truth. He is the Truth in person, drawing the world to himself. In the sacrament of the Eucharist, Jesus shows us in particular the truth about the love which is the very essence of God. It is this evangelical truth which challenges our whole being. For this reason, the Church locates the Eucharist at the very center of her life.

Make Jesus the center of your life. Seek him in all things and life according to his pattern. Come to the Eucharist frequently and meditate on what it means to be fed by God and have his truth transform your life and priorities. Living for him and with him is true wisdom.