How over-work is related to idleness, and how both are destroying us

download (1)Have you ever looked back on a day and thought – wow, I really accomplished a lot today! – and you get this feeling of great accomplishment, because from sunup to sundown, you were busy, you were productive. I occasionally feel like that. As a priest, I’m very happy to be in the parish, working hard, getting things done, but I have a hard time with some of the other responsibilities of being a priest, the quiet time, protecting time for prayer and reading, going on my spiritual retreat, because none of these have a specific, work-related task that needs accomplishing. If I’m not checking an item off a to-do list, I start to get physically itchy, my skin crawls and I have to hop up and do something, anything. We have all been conditioned to value productivity, thinking a successful person is someone who seems to be very active.

This, of course, is related to the question that arises from the story of Mary and Martha. The traditional Catholic reading of this passage makes a comparison between the active and the contemplative life, and there’s a related set of questions that arise from it – What is the relationship between work and leisure? Should we be like Martha or like Mary? Is one attitude more valuable than the other? If we work through these questions, we will come to a somewhat surprising spiritual insight regarding the source of spiritual laziness or sloth.

First, let’s talk about Martha. Martha is a worker. She washes the dishes, makes sure a coaster is under everyone’s cup, refills the pretzel bowl. She wants to be sure the gathering is going smoothly. At it’s best, her attitude is one of hospitality and generosity. Related to that, when we engage in work and productivity, we participate in God’s creative impulse. We work not only to make money, but more importantly to create something of value, a product or a service, something that makes someone’s life easier because you’ve done a good job. A job well done is something to be proud of, so the problem that we tend to face isn’t work; it is over-work. The insistent need to fill up our days, to measure ourselves by productivity, and the mistake of defining ourselves by accomplishments. This is the bad habit that Martha seems to be sliding into, and we see what happens. It separates her from Jesus. He is sitting in her very home and she is too distracted to spend time with him.

For those of us who over-work, what happens is that whenever we get any free time, we use it in idleness because we are exhausted. We watch mindless television, surf the internet, seek out gossip, that sort of thing. This, we should be careful to note, is not what Mary is doing when she sits at the feet of Christ. What Mary is doing is engaging in true leisure. She is taking a healthy rest from work. She isn’t simply vegetating on the couch until it’s time to work again. This authentic form of leisure is why God made us. We know this because the first, full day on earth is a sabbath, the day of rest. It is the leisure that completes the creation.

Leisure is not necessarily easy. Mary is putting in effort, too, just like Martha. It’s just of a different kind. She is listening. She is praying. She is contemplating. She isn’t wasting her time, she is putting in a great effort to be present for her Lord. This, I think, is why I find spiritual retreats so challenging. They take a lot of effort, because you go to the middle of nowhere, you read and pray, you take walks and think. It’s a way of self-reflecting and trying to hear from God and it is hard. But it is true leisure, and what I notice is that I always return from spiritual retreats refreshed and full of energy.

For most of us, our lives are going to consist of some mix of work and leisure – six days of work and one day of rest. We need to protect our leisure from being overwhelmed by work, because it is the leisure where God really meets us, and it is the sabbath that draws us out of earthly cares and into the important spiritual matters upon which rests our self-knowledge, our redemption, and our happiness.

The balance of work and leisure is different for all of us, and it may change during the course of our lives. If you’re raising children right now, your leisure time might be less and it might be different. Your leisure may be watching your children grow, taking time to kiss them good night, being with you kids and enjoying your family. If you’re retired, you have the opportunity to really spend a lot of time in prayer and reading. Your leisure may be enjoying quality time with friends, having a meal with your parents, taking a day trip somewhere. I would encourage everyone to make time for a spiritual retreat, and I know we have a group of men who go once a year to White House, which is a great habit.

Whatever your leisure time is, each of us needs to get it right. Otherwise a somewhat unintended spiritual consequence will result, which is sloth. Sloth is one of the deadly sins, and those who struggle with it find that they neglect their prayer time, or feel stressed and rushed, or even start skipping Mass on Sunday.

The philosopher Josef Pieper says, “Idleness and lack of leisure belong with each other; leisure is opposed to both.” In other words, being too busy with work and lazily wasting time are related problems – both of them are opposed to leisure, both of them are very different from what Mary is doing when she sits at the foot of Christ. When you are feeling spiritually slothful (the technical term is Acedia), the remedy is not to start working really hard, it is to restore and protect your leisure time. You may be slothful because you are over-working and you’re exhausted. You may also be slothful because you are not putting enough effort into your leisure.

Sloth is a weariness of the soul, and it is Jesus who heals us and helps us carry the burden. Leisure cannot simply be an accident of when you have a day off or a holiday. Like Mary, you must fight for it. You must make great efforts to stay near to Jesus. There’s always something else that we could be doing, but it isn’t important enough to draw us away from Our Lord.

Choose the better way, and just see what happiness and joy and blessing God sends to you.


What does it mean to live with compassion?

download (1)I hope this question is always at the forefront of our minds – What must I do to gain eternal life? In response, Our Lord tells the story of the Good Samaritan. By doing so, he indicates that a life of compassion is a necessary condition to answering that question. How do we achieve eternal life? First, begin by loving each other as much as God loves us. The original audience for that story didn’t know just how devastating those words of Our Lord truly are, because they were hearing them before he gave his life in exchange for ours, they didn’t know that he was going to become the greatest example of compassion that the world has ever known. This is the standard for us. Do you want to go to heaven? This is the level of commitment that is required.

In the context of our own lives, how do we define that commitment? What does it mean for you and me to be compassionate?

I’m going to admit right now that this is a virtue I really have to work at. It isn’t that I dislike you all, you’re lovely people. It’s not you, it’s me. Are you familiar with the Meyers-Briggs personality inventory that tells you all about yourself? You get letters that stand for what you are, your life summed up in four letters. I’m an INTJ, which means – Introvert, Intuition, Thinking, Judgment. This means that I tend to think things through clinically, privately, and in great detail, and if you don’t do the same, I judge you. INTJ’s are the rarest of the 16 categories and are often referred to as, “Masterminds,” which doesn’t sound ominous at all.

As part of the vetting process before ordination to the priesthood, the seminary sent me to a psychologist who worked up a report on my mental makeup. Looking at the data, he explained that I have no clue at any given moment what I’m feeling. I only figure out my emotions later, after I’ve already acted out on them. So I don’t always have compassion because I fail to register emotions, or because I don’t understand how they play into a decision-making process. Anyway, enough about me! How is that you struggle with compassion? Tell me your secrets.

I’m sure we all have our challenges, action or lack of action that we later regret, harsh words said or kind words left unsaid. It’s very typical to judge harshly first and only later to develop enough empathy to have compassion. There are no excuses for us, no matter what your Meyers-Briggs says, we’re all responsible for our actions and we’re all seeking to transform those past mistakes into future growth.

When it comes to compassion, it’s important to note right away that it isn’t a system, it isn’t even a Church organization. Those endeavors seek to bring about social justice, but compassion goes beyond justice. Compassion is personal. It is the Samaritan himself who stops, and bandages the wounds of the injured man, who takes him to a hotel, who checks up on him later. It is a personal interaction.

Compassion cannot be delegated. I’m a big fan of our St. Vincent de Paul because, even though it’s technically an organization, it’s one that feels very small, very local. The Vincentians insist on personal interactions, looking people in the eye and accepting them as human beings and not as statistics. It means asking about their families, asking if they can pray for them, taking a minute to get to know them. The people we help through our St. Vincent de Paul are not clients, they are our neighbors. It’s very inefficient to do it this way, but it is compassionate, and it is irreplaceable. Reaching out in love takes place in less-than-ideal circumstances. It is undertaken by us, who are less-than-ideal people, to those who may not be perfectly grateful or even understand what they have been given.

In Lord of the Rings, there’s a really beautiful example. Frodo and Sam, two hobbits, unassuming, modest creatures just like us who really just want to sit by the fire at night with their families, these two are on a heroic journey to save the world. They have the Ring of Power and must destroy it by throwing it into a volcano. On their journey, they’re followed by Gollum, who used to be a hobbit himself but is now twisted into a pathetic creature because of his obsession with claiming the ring for himself.

At one point, Gollum arranges for Frodo and Sam to be murdered, and when he returns to find them both unharmed, Tolkien writes this; “Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face…slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee – but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.”

Gollum is destroyed by sin, but there is still something good deep within. As Frodo says, “While there’s life, there’s hope!” At another point in the story, Gollum is captured by Frodo’s friends, and they ask if they should execute him for his crimes. Frodo begs them to spare his life, saying, “Let me go down quietly to him…you may keep your bows bent, and shoot me at least, if I fail.” In other words, Frodo is willing to lay down his life to save his enemy.

Think of the person who torments you most in your life. Maybe a person who has treated you unfairly, who has made your life miserable, either knowingly or unknowingly. That person is also your neighbor. While we aren’t to be expected to be naive and gullible, we are expected to have compassion. Our love for our neighbor holds nothing back. It isn’t something that others must earn from us, and this is why it is the secret to attaining eternal life. Eternal life is not earned, it is an act of compassion from God to us, and what we are freely given we must freely give.

Examine the Cross. See the love that is displayed there. See that Our Lord pours out his blood for us, who were poor sinners, for us, who are made of dust and ashes, for us, who are but matchwood before a fire. He pours out his blood for us, poor travelers lying bruised and livid at the crossroad. Go, says Our Lord, and do likewise.

The power of sensible worship

henri-cartier-bresson-madrid-1953Today, in our churches we have statues and crucifixes and pictures of the saints, and the Catholic Church has always encouraged us to have images in our parishes, but there was a period of time in the 8th century when a movement called Iconoclasm was attempting to remove every image of Jesus or a saint from churches. The Church rejected the iconoclast demands and, as you can see. The iconoclast movement has popped up again in various disguises throughout history and targeted all forms of beauty in churches. For instance, when Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan army seized control of England in 1653, they immediately started whitewashing the interior of churches and tearing down statues. They took the candles off the altars and pulled down the altar rails. They stopped using incense and wearing nice vestments. The Puritan dislike of physical beauty continued over into the American protestant churches and many of them were and are very simple, very plain, and don’t even have an image of a crucifix inside. The church I grew up in, for example, only had an empty cross on the back wall, and there were no other decorations.

The motives for iconoclasts are various, but the main motive seems to be the opinion that religion needs to be purely an interior, intellectual or emotional experience. To represent our faith through art or ritual would be to idolize a fallen and sinful creation. A true worshiper, the argument goes, detaches from the physical world and finds God only in the quietness of the heart. Like all religious movements that rebel against the Catholic Church, there is an element of truth here – A picture of Jesus is not Jesus himself and we don’t worship statues. This world is not our home and we do seek to make our way to heaven. A Christian does and must carry Christ within his heart and make faith a personal endeavor. The Catholic Church has always believed this.

But here’s the mistake of iconoclasm. In it’s extreme, by truly understanding the value of the interior spiritual life and falsely assuming this means the physical world is bad; it goes against the Scriptures. In the beginning, God creates the universe and says that it is good. God instructs the Israelites to fashion images of archangels for the Ark of the Covenant. He instructs them to build a beautiful temple filled with works of art. He instructs them to worship in a physical way, with a high altar and priests in vestments and incense burned at the altar along with candles. When Jesus is raised from the dead, it is with a physical, human body. When he ascends to heaven, he enthrones that physical, human body at the right hand of the Father. The early Church always understood that the Eucharist, the physical, tangible experience of receiving the Body of Christ, was the most sacred act of our worship. St. Paul talks about how we are made in the image of Christ and how what we do with our bodies really matters.

In our Old Testament reading today, God tells the Israelites, “Your bodies shall flourish like the grass.” It’s a tactile, physical expression of God’s love. He cares about this physical world and is seeking to redeem it. St. Paul says, “I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.” Meaning that he shows by the manner of his outward physical suffering what he believes in his heart. Jesus sends the disciples out with the instructions to to say, “Peace to this house!” and the peace they give will have a noticeable effect on that household. “If anyone is there who shares in peace,” he says, “your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.” So, even when Our Lord talks about a spiritual concept like the virtue of peace, he’s talking about something that spreads out into the physical world.

There’s an old Latin motto in the Church that says, “Lex orandi, lex credendi/ The law of prayer is the law of belief.” In other words, people will know what we believe by watching how we pray. So, if I preach a homily and wax poetic about transubstantiation, that we really receive the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, that the God of the universe is present on our altar at the Mass, then my actions need to be coherent with what I’m saying. I must comport myself reverently, and carefully, and turn the attention not to myself but to him, because, of course, if Jesus is here then all eyes should be on him. If I say the Eucharist is the most precious thing we have in this entire world, but then treat it casually, what are you going to believe? You will believe not my words but my actions. But let’s say I do treat the Eucharist with respect and adoration, I put on my best vestments, maybe use incense to show that the altar is sacred, purify my hands before and after touching the Host, and pray with as much love and devotion as I can, I may not even need to say anything about the Eucharist, a visitor will see by the way that we act that it is the heart of our faith.

This is the power of sensible worship. St Thomas Aquinas teaches that every piece of knowledge we have comes to us through the physical world, through our senses. We are bodily creatures, so God approaches us through the physical nature of the sacraments, through sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. We learn deep truths about God through the physical, ritual of the Mass, and because of this it is very important how we offer a Mass.

Perhaps more importantly, this physical nature of God’s communication with us shows how every aspect of our lives is important to him. It isn’t just the moments you spend in prayer or at Mass. He is redeeming our bodies, he is redeeming this physical world, and he is bringing it to a beautiful fruition, when heaven will overlap this reality and transform it. For a Christian, a rose is not just a rose, it is a vestige, an echo of the God who made it. It shouts out for all the world to hear that the invisible world has descended upon us and everything about your life matters. The sunrise you saw this morning matters, the walk you’re going to take with your dog later this afternoon matters. Your work, family, friends, quiet moments, busy moments, everything you do matters, because when we do those things well, they become signifiers of God. They point to heaven in just the same way that the beauty of our worship does.

St. Bonaventure says that, from the beauty of creation, “We are led to behold God…like the two wings drooping about the feet of [an angel]…For creatures are shadows, echoes, and pictures of that first, most powerful, most wise, and most perfect [God].”

The new creation is everything, says St. Paul. So let everything you do in this life be beautiful, let it be good, let it be true, because you are like a mirror that reflects the face of God. Everything you do, even the smallest seemingly insignificant action, is a potential sign of the new creation.

Even grace has a cost

The chapel at San Juan Capistrano

We’re all law abiding people, right? None of us are going to go out and shoot off dangerous fireworks when we know it’s illegal in the city, right? This week, I’m sure we’re all going to be out celebrating July 4 – after attending 9am Mass here, of course – by eating too much blueberry pie and messing around with a bunch of super-dangerous, explosive fireworks, just how Thomas Jefferson would want us to celebrate (seriously, be safe, everyone). History is funny, because the people who write the textbooks get to choose the narrative for what happened hundreds of years ago, but the stories that are left out mean that the picture we have in our minds isn’t always complete. In California, there’s an old Spanish Mission Church just south of Los Angeles called San Juan Capistrano. The Mission is famous today because each year the swallows return and nest there under the eaves of the wooden roof, but what isn’t always talked about is that this particular Mission was founded in 1776, a great date in American history, by the Franciscan saint, Junipero Serra. He is a vitally important figure in the American story, but he is seldom mentioned.

Serra was born in Spain and until the age of 35 was a well-regarded preacher and university professor. Suddenly, he gave it all up and became a missionary to the New World. He arrived in Vera Cruz, Mexico and walked the 250 miles to Mexico City. On the way his leg became infected by an insect bite and would remain a source of pain for the rest of his life. For 18 years, he worked in Mexico before making a 900 mile journey up the coast to San Diego in 1769. He arrived in the midst of a famine and vowed to stay with the local people and be hungry with them. He went on in the next decade to found missions up and down the coast. The natives became his beloved children and he fought to create the first significant legal protection of natives in North America, a sort of Bill of Rights.

St. Junipero voluntarily gave up his easy life in Spain and chose to live in a dangerous, hungry, challenging part of the world. His feast day is this Monday.

Now that I’ve told you about the heroism of St. Junipero, here’s my own sob story of sacrifice and deprivation. When I was in high school – I had to go to a public school, I didn’t know all the cool kids go to St. Mary’s – I first began to discern my vocation to priesthood. I use the word “discern” very loosely because I was not interested in being a pastor. I made a few college visits, both to art schools because what I really wanted was to be a painter, but eventually God got through to me and I reluctantly went to school to study theology.

Long story short, as an Episcopal priest I spent five years as pastor on Cape Cod, suffering for Jesus a few miles from the beach in a part of the world that tourists flock to see because it’s so beautiful. I had to eat fresh, raw oysters right out of Wellfleet Bay, make day trips to Nantucket, and swim in a lake that had been carved out of the Cape during the ice age by a retreating glacier. In the summer, we would go out and actually have early morning Church services at the beach. It was a hard life, you guys. Then I became Catholic and came to you all, where you bring me baked treats, give me Christmas gifts even though I don’t get you anything, and are really, generally, very nice people to hang out with. What I mean to say is, after I overcame my initial hard-headedness, following God’s will for my life hasn’t been all that much of a sacrifice. I will say, though, that back when I was seventeen and trying to figure it all out, not knowing how much joy God had in store if I simply said Yes, the struggle was real.

Whether God asks great, sacrificial feats of you like he did of St. Junipero or if he is asking you to lay down your life in myriad small ways during your daily life here in South City, the vocation for all of us is the same – to follow Jesus with no reservations, holding nothing back.

We often talk about grace, the assurance that God shares his power with us, that he is leading us up the path to Heaven, that at the Cross he has done the saving work for us and we don’t have to earn our salvation. This is all very true, but it doesn’t mean that grace is cheap. Grace isn’t to be taken for granted – it has a cost. It costs a life. It cost Our Lord his life, but it also costs me my life, and it costs you your life. In order to receive his gift, we must give ourselves totally to God, rely on him, obey him, and follow him.

When Elisha is called to be a prophet, he’s in a field, probably growing food for himself and his family. He hesitates for a moment and then makes his choice, burning his farming equipment and slaughtering his ox. For him, there is no going back to farming, there is no second-guessing. He is all in.

When a follower of Jesus declares, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replies, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” Would you trade your whole world for love of a homeless man? Because that’s what Jesus was. He owns nothing. He tossed aside crown and scepter, tumbled out of Heaven, and began the dangerous, painful process of shaking us loose from our sinful attachments so that we would, finally, even if reluctantly, raise our eyes up and behold our true destiny and dignity.

Will you follow him if he asks you to donate time or money to Church? If he tells you to forgive a person who has harmed you? If he tells you to leave behind pride, or a cherished part of your identity? Would you limp across the world to become a poor missionary? Would you follow him into the shadow of Cross?

Fulton Sheen once wrote that preaching is not the act of giving a sermon, it is the art of making a preacher. The preacher himself then becomes the sermon. We might rephrase that to say that discipleship is not the act of saying all the correct things, it is the art of following Jesus. The Christian then becomes a living witness of discipleship, not by what we say, but by the force of our convictions and the way in which we embody the love of Christ. A disciple is not only defined by what we strive to achieve, but by what we have left behind. The value of the treasure is set by what we are willing to pay for it. Jesus Christ is worth everything.

You are our inheritance, O Lord

The single, best thing a father can do for his children

web-saint-joseph-child-shutterstock_52352359-zvonimir-atletic-aiMen, particularly when we’re boys, we do strange things. I know, because I’ve done them. A friend of mine has a son who complained about all the girls in his class. He remarked that the really great thing about boys is they don’t go around bothering everyone. I’m wondering if he has ever met any other boys.

Boys have a natural habitat. They carve it out by digging in mud. They build it around themselves with Legos. Boys can always be found messing with crawdads in the creek, or perching from a flimsy tree branch 30 feet above the ground. Boys will hit an object until it breaks, not because they want to break it, mind you, but as an experiment to see how hard you have to hit it until it does break. Once it breaks, then they know. They don’t like sitting at school desks, and they learn much more by snooping and by attempting incredibly dangerous things.

How do these untamed creatures grow up and become responsible fathers? This is the real mystery of fathers day. Where did you all come from?

Men don’t learn how to be fathers, they simply become fathers. A baby is thrust into his trembling arms and a man instantly finds himself changed. He is changed by love. However, men never quite overcome their boyish instincts. I think of Thomas Edison, who when he was a boy took the time to sit on a chicken egg to see if he could hatch it. Later in life as a supposedly responsible adult he built massively dangerous electrical machines meant for the sole purpose of creating and shooting lightning randomly into the air. Speaking of lighting, one of the famous fathers of our nation, Benjamin Franklin, thought it was a good idea to go out in a storm with a kite, hoping lightning would strike him just so he could feel what it was like. Men are the kind of people who historically would fight a battle and then write a poem about it.

Both boys and their fathers need to be able to find snails to examine them, go out and throw the baseball around the yard, and wrestle like a couple of maniacs. Men never change.

Today, on the Solemnity of the Most Blessed Trinity, we learn that God is our Father. Knowing what we know about men, that’s a bracing concept to wrap the mind around. God could have called himself any other name he wanted. The fact is, God isn’t a man. We use the masculine pronoun because it matches with Father, but in the end he could have called himself Creator or Master or anything he wanted…but he chooses the dangerous title of Father.

There is something necessary about fatherhood to our flourishing. We need fathers. Basic statistics reveal that families with fathers do better, and that if fathers attend Mass then their children are far more likely to attend mass when they are adults. Fathers teach their children how to chop down a tree just for fun or how to leap off a scary diving board at the pool. They will create needlessly complex, competitive games to play with their kids and almost kill themselves trying to win it (against their own children!). Fathers build cities and towns, clear fields and plant them. They read bedtime stories. They show their children how a husband loves his wife, how a strong man is gentle, how masculinity is not about power but is about turning strength into loving devotion and open-heartedness. As when we talked about spiritual motherhood, this holds true of fatherhood as well. All men exercise a fatherly vocation. In particular this is why men are called to the priesthood. Fatherhood is bequeathed, and it seeks to imitate God. In this way, each man participates in the fatherhood of God.

The reason to go through all this is not to point out how amazing men are – we already know how amazing we are, trust me – and this isn’t to compare men and women, but it’s a way of saying that fatherhood is unique and irreplaceable. This gives us some pretty important information about God, that he protects us, guards us, leads us into truth, challenges us, provides for us, and, ultimately, kicks us out of the house so he can watch the football game.

A boy will bloody another boy’s nose and then give him a ride home on his bike. That’s how God is, he will reveal to you all your darkest, weakest, most embarrassing failings. He will be blunt and honest and he will call you to account, but then he will remind you how much he loves you, how he forgives everything without a second thought, and how proud he is of you.

I was watching an Anthony Esolen lecture the other day (he’s a Catholic writer), and he says that every father – and in my experience this is true – yearns for his sons to become better men than they were. Even Jesus says this: “Everything that the Father has is mine.” There’s a famous scene in the Illiad, Hector has come back within the walls of Troy and when his baby son sees him, he’s scared by the plume on Hector’s military helmet. Hector laughs, takes his helmet off, picks up his little boy in his arms, and says that he hopes when his son is grown, people will say, “This man’s father was a good man, but he is a far greater man.” A good father gives everything to his children, just as God gives everything to us.

A more recent story – you may have heard that the Blues won the Stanley Cup – it was an emotional moment for many people. Two brothers were talking about it the next morning, and the younger brother said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Daddy cry before!” His older brother replied, “I have. He cries on Good Friday every year.”

This a father. He desires only that they love Jesus better than he has, that they become greater than their poor Dad, greater saints, better fathers, and mothers, and priests. As imperfect as we men are at trying to be fathers, if we teach our children to look to Our Heavenly Father, and to look to Jesus, and they see us praying with tears in our eyes, that is what the world needs, what the Church needs, and what our children need. For you, fathers, we are truly grateful. Each day may you help us look more closely to the face of love.