Finding God in the midst of a busy calendar

Stressful-Day-image

Year A Ordinary 32

Sometimes I look at my calendar, see all the appointments, and have a stress reaction. I wonder how I’m going to fit everything in. Every single week (I never learn), I worry about how I’m going to find time to write my homily for Sunday. Every single week it works out and I have time, but without fail I still end up anxious about the next one every Monday morning. The jam-packed calendar is a major distraction. There are plenty of other distractions: our phones beep with text messages and emails, televisions and radios keep us company at pretty much all times, or we gossip and scroll through facebook.

In the parable Our Lord tells, distractions have actually drawn some of the guests of a wedding feast out of the party and they end up in the dark, locked out when they try to get back in. This is what distraction does to us spiritually if we aren’t careful. He says that this lack of focus is a sign of foolishness, which I take to mean an inability to sort out what’s important from what isn’t. Those who are distracted miss out on the defining moment of their lives.

“Therefore, stay awake,” says Our Lord. Every single moment is a possible revelation of God, but we must be attentive. It’s all in what we desire and where put our energy. In the book of Wisdom, it says that wisdom, “hastens to make herself known in anticipation of…desire.” In other words, wisdom is shaped by our desire and responds to it. This is why Socrates says that “wonder is the beginning of wisdom.” What he means is that the first halting step towards wisdom is a person looking up at the night sky in amazement, a child who watches a bird build a nest, or a grandfather telling a story about his experiences. We’re struck by the beautiful heights of the universe and the depths of the human soul. We want to know more, we want to discover who we are and why this whole world seems to be made just for us. These questions never arise if our desires, instead of being shaped by wonder and desire for wisdom, are instead shaped by the demands of our daily calendar.

True wisdom understands that Our Lord is the bridegroom, that our lives find meaning in him alone. He celebrates the wedding feast and every effort must be made to stay at the altar with him. We light our lamps, we stock up on oil to burn, we stay focused. This focus is the result of wisdom. It is also shaped by hope. Hope, St. Paul says, is one of the three most important virtues – these three remain, faith, hope, and love. The reason hope is so important is that it looks ahead, beyond our natural sight, and sees a supernatural end goal to our lives. We are made for Heaven. Knowing this, you can ask yourself, “Am I living in such a way as to reach my stated hope? Am I preparing myself for Heaven or am I so distracted that I’m using up all my time and energy on lesser pursuits?

I suspect that many of us misplace our hope. At the least, we’re hedging our bets with money, career, good health, good reputation, those sorts of things. I had a real reckoning with that reality about six years ago when I quit my position as an Anglican priest. I’d converted to Catholicism and, for some reason, Anglicans don’t care for Catholics to be in charge of their parishes so I resigned and was trying to get a job in St. Louis. Archbishop Carlson was very supportive during the whole process, and it turns out I had nothing to worry about at all. But even so, it was an anxious time and I came to realize that my hope was more in my own self-identity as a priest and in my ability to earn a paycheck than it was in my ultimate destiny in Heaven. Without my comfortable job and identity, I was stressed out and not falling asleep very well at night. I remember praying at my kneeler (the one I have right behind my chair here in the sanctuary) in my study in Dennis, MA. I’d had my last Easter as pastor at the Anglican Church of the Resurrection, packed up my cassock and my white priest-collar, and wasn’t sure I’d ever wear them again. I felt a piece of myself left behind, like the door to my childhood home had been closed and couldn’t be opened again. I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried, and finally I told the Blessed Virgin Mary that whatever happened to my priesthood, I needed to let go and give it back to her because it belongs to her and I know that she keeps her priests close to her heart. If nothing else, I knew that the piece of my heart that might be gone forever would be held close to hers.

I learned something during those five years before I was finally ordained a Catholic priest. I learned that I relied too much on myself, too much on the wrong things, and wasn’t fully committed to God. My desires weren’t pure.

No one is immune. Priests, regular Mass-goers, bishops, people who pray the rosary and volunteer all the time at Church…we all must constantly fight to avoid distraction. We must make a constant effort to stay awake, because the moment we let our guard down, that’s when the moment slips past and we lived that moment without God. What a tragedy that is.

How do we slow down and uncover the glory of God in every moment and aspect of our lives, how do we hold onto that hope for Eternal happiness in the midst of dropping kids off at the soccer game, grocery shopping, dealing with the latest family crisis, doing our jobs, and paying the bills?

St. Charles Borromeo, whose feast we celebrated not long ago, gives us a few tips.

FIND GOD IN THE MIDST OF YOUR ACTIVITY

First, we don’t need to ruthlessly cut away from our calendar – we can find God in our midst in any activity, he says. Spend quiet time with God, and anyone “may make his meditation at home or in the fields; he may even make it on the road, or at work…” We all have time in the morning when we’re getting ready for the day or in the car during a commute, maybe that would be a good time to turn the television or radio off and have some quiet to think about the day? Any time is better than none.

PLAN AHEAD

Second, plan ahead. If schedules rule our lives, turn it to an advantage. Put meditation time on the calendar. St. Charles recommends the morning because it helps throughout the day. If the time you typically use to commute is suddenly ear-marked as “quiet time,” it can be just the little bit of motivation that’s needed. The other benefit of scheduling time for meditation is that it forces us to do it when we don’t feel like it because we’re stressed or distracted – which is precisely the best time for it.

MEDITATE

Third, consider each activity planned for the day. Think about what you do and why you do it. St. Charles says the fruits of meditation helps with emotions, prayer, and making decisions. He also says it forms a “good resolution.” For me, this has been particularly true when I know I’m going to be in the presence of someone I find it hard to get along with. I meditate on it in the morning and prepare ahead of time to be kind and patient. When I don’t, the moment takes me by surprise and I fall into bad habits.

By practicing his advice and putting aside distraction, every aspect of life becomes a “work of love,” no matter how busy our calendar remains. This is how we stay awake, slow down, and open our eyes to see how beautiful and full of God’s grace each moment can be if we don’t hurry past.

Through the night-watches we will meditate on You

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Do as I say, not as I do

halloween-candy-by-phanton-kitty

Year A Ordinary 31

Last week, on Halloween night, parents everywhere gave us the greatest possible example of the great teaching moment, “Do as I say, not as I do.” What I mean by this is that, once the last child had fallen asleep, every Dad sneaked into his precious child’s room as their innocent faces reclined in the arms of sleep, and those fathers (and maybe you too, mothers), stole a piece of Halloween candy from their darling child’s bag of treats. Never steal, we tell our kids. And if they take candy from each other, you better believe time outs and chores shall be doled out as punishment, but when it comes to the siren song of that fun-sized Snickers bar, rules must be broken. That’s why, when I was a kid, I counted up and organized all my candy very carefully and I took a nightly inventory of my stash. I created all sorts of clever hiding places in my room so my brothers and parents couldn’t get to my stash. I asked my dad this week if he ever stole mine when I was a kid he said, “Yes, but it was for your own good.” He’s totally unrepentant.

That’s not really serious, but parents try so hard, and so desperately want to help their children avoid picking up on their bad habits. It can be a little thing, like when a kid parrots back a phrase and tone of voice that you realize you use all the time and you have a mental crisis and wonder do I really sound like that? That’s why parents, as they say, are the last people on earth who ought to have children. Really, though, it’s a difficult, beautiful vocation – parents you’re the absolute best, and we love having your kids crawl all over the pews during Mass, the more the better, and all of us laughing who aren’t parents aren’t off the hook on this one, either. We’ve all done things we claim we hate. We all nod our heads at things we hear in the Scriptures or homily and then find ourselves doing the exact opposite later in the week.

Our Old Testament reading today is a sobering rebuke of priests, who God says have broken faith with his covenant. If a priest is a spiritual father, how is it that they have broken faith with their children? They have not told the people the truth. It is so easy and so tempting as a priest to avoid confrontations. Sometimes this is prudent and wise, for instance I will never talk about politics under any circumstances. But how about talking to you about the reality of hell? Or the way in which contraception has damaged the human family and caused an epidemic of broken marriages? Immigration? These are very difficult topics and I shy away from them, partly because I don’t know if I’m well-spoken enough to deal with them in a short homily, partly because I worry about how it will be received, or I worry about preaching on difficult topics when I know I fall short and am so sinful in many areas of my life.

But now contrast that with what St. Paul, who as a bishop says to the Church, “We were determined to share with you…the gospel.” The full truth, exactly as laid out in God’s covenant, and taught by the Church. Why? Because you deserve the whole truth! A good parent doesn’t lie or refuse to fulling inform a child. You deserve to know about Purgatory and Hell, and Mortal sin, and about days of fasting and holy days of obligation, and about all the ways in which the Church stands athwart the waywardness of our current age. The Church isn’t judging you, she simply wants you to have all the information you need to form a responsible decision.

Note something really interesting in the Gospel, even the Pharisees, the implacable enemies of Christ, are correctly teaching the people! Our Lord says the problem isn’t their teaching, it’s their actions. Here we are back at the “Do as I say” problem. A priest cannot simply tell you what’s right and wrong and demand that you fall in line, because a priest must himself fall in line first. Parents, you don’t only tell your children how you would like them to behave, you work and struggle to model that behavior yourself. The exterior action is connected with the interior disposition, and so your children imitate you as you show them what a loving family looks like, how a man treats a woman, how a woman gently cares for her children, how a family prays together. They see how you treat the cashier at the supermarket, and how you respond to other drivers on the road. They listen to the kind of language you use to describe others or how you speak when you’re angry.

St. Charles Borromeo was a bishop and spiritual father to many priests. He insisted to them that they must practice what they preach, and he gives them advice about how to do so, writing “Would you like me to teach you how to grow from virtue to virtue…If a tiny spark of God’s love already burns within you, do not expose it to the wind, for it may get blown out. Keep the stove tightly shut so that it will not lose its heat and grow cold. In other words, avoid distractions as well as you can. Stay quiet with God.”

Within each one of us glows a tiny spark, the fire of God’s love. This is God’s grace. Don’t let it go out. Why do we break faith with one another, why do priests break faith with God, why do parents struggle to be consistent with their children? Because we seek to do everything by willpower, we look all around us for strength when the world is powerless to provide it, instead of humbling ourselves and relying on God. We try to be perfect, like the Pharisees, on our own, and even if we say the right thing we are powerless to do the right thing. St. Charles says that the better path is to “meditate on…the Lord’s blood…so that all you do becomes a work of love…in meditation we find the strength to bring Christ to birth in ourselves and in other men.” In other words, focus on Jesus. Consider how we have a Heavenly Father who forgives all things, who only asks of us that we cooperate with his grace. Grace doesn’t immediately make us perfect, but it renders the struggle meritorious. There is grace at work in you when you fall and get back up again, when you stumble and feel you’ve let God down but ask for mercy to keep going. We seek the truth, we ask God’s help to apply the truth, and we ask forgiveness when we fail. As a priest, as a parent, as a friend, this is what God asks of us, and this is the path by which eventually we will finally reconcile word and deed.

In the meantime, we ask Our Lord to shape and renew us until we bear the image of Christ.

The saints reveal the one, true sadness of life

Communion-of-Saints

All Saints

At the end of Hamlet, after Hamlet has died, his friend Horatio utters a now famous eulogy, “Now cracks a noble heart. Goodnight, sweet prince,/and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” His words are an echo of the Requiem Mass, in which we pray, “In paradisum deducant te angeli. May the angels lead thee into paradise.” The very last words of Hamlet himself are, “The rest is silence.” The word “rest” has two meanings, the first is et cetera, meaning – after my death I will fall into the silence of the grave and speak no more. The other meaning is requiem, meaning – in eternal rest the noise and distraction of this life will filter away. This is an echo of the scriptural description of Heaven as a place of rest.

Hamlet is a tragedy, but only if seen from one perspective, because for Hamlet himself the ending is triumphant. He dies, yes, and he suffered much during his life, but throughout his life he always sough the truth and he always sought to find the best action even if it caused his life to be more difficult. Shakespeare clearly admires Hamlet and wants to make clear that this man, even though he never inherited his Father’s throne, is now a King in Heaven.

So Hamlet is a tragedy, but it is not sad. The spiritual writer Leon Bloy says, “The greatest sadness in life is to not become a saint.” Bishop Barron comments on that statement, saying that there’s all kinds of sadness that we can ruminate on from our past – I didn’t become the success I wanted to be, I didn’t achieve this or that, I didn’t get the money I wanted. There’s all kinds of sadness, but in the final reckoning none of that is as important as we think it is, or at least, it doesn’t have the final say in whether your life is, on balance, happy or sad. At the end of the day, there’s only one real sadness, to not become a saint — to not become the person that Christ wants you to be.

St. Paul puts this so eloquently when he says, “If I speak in the tongues of men and angels but have not love, I am nothing.” And again, he says, “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are.”

If I can get confessional here for a minute, I’ve always wanted to be a great writer, but all I have is a novel I wrote about 10 years ago shoved in my desk drawer that will never see the light of day again because it is so terrible. I want a beach house on Cape Cod, I want to be able to run a mile in under 4 minutes. Some of my goals in life I’ve achieved, others I’m so far away I may as well be looking at them through binoculars, but as Bishop Barron says, this is all trivial. God made each and every one of us, and he has one goal in mind for you, one goal only – that you would become his child. That he might hold you close, and share his love with you, and draw you into his big, messy, amazing family. Everything else is trivial. Until Jesus becomes Lord of your whole life, you can accomplish anything you want but it will eventually slip away into the silence of the grave.

The only survivor of the grave is the human soul, which is of everlasting value. The way to emerge triumphant is to become a saint, to situate ourselves directly in the midst of this great hope for the future, that we are in the process of becoming more and more like Jesus. A saint is a living revelation of God’s glory, a person who embodies the ideal of pure love.

It can seem oppressive, to be told that we must become saints and we must follow God’s plan, we must fit within his narrow confines. But when we limit ourselves in this way we find that love, like beauty, is a strange phenomenon. It isn’t a zero sum game, and it follows an unexpected path. The more beautiful something is, the more it points beyond itself. We want to know the artist behind the beauty, or we encounter these deep emotions and spiritual consolations through beauty. The greater the beauty, the more it flings the doors of the universe wide open. It’s a sign of something else. Love is like this too. God loves us and his love is a promise that we shall never die, that we shall be made saints. When we become totally God’s, he doesn’t remove from us our own desires and happiness, we aren’t oppressed by him. His love refers us on to a greater glory. We become more what we currently are.

The communion of saints is a powerful society. They have found their rest and now they turn to us with all their compassion to help us find ours.

A bit of practical advice? Find a saint who is special to you (For me it’s Edmund Campion, Maximilian Kolbe, and Edith Stein), maybe your patron saint from confirmation, maybe a saint who you’ve bonded with over the years, and maintain that relationship and ask them to help you and pray for you. The saints are our friends, our brothers and sisters, and they want nothing more than for us to join them in their happiness as they gather in wordless joy around the throne of God Almighty.

Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face.

 

The Shakespearean insight is entirely from Joseph Pearce’s excellent book Through Shakespeare’s Eyes

God’s Love is Destructive

Campion
St. Edmund Campion with a noose around his neck and knife in his heart. He died of love for the Church, England, and the Queen

Year A Ordinary 30

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,” This is the commandment that Our Lord singles out as being the most important of all. This is a truth that was first given to Israelites by Yahweh and became a prayer known as the Shema that, by the time of Jesus, was repeated twice a day by every Jew. It was their foundational prayer, a personal acknowledgment of God, and the taking upon oneself the burden of the Kingdom of God. The Jewish people still say the Shema before going to sleep at night, over a baby boy on the night before his circumcision, and at death. It is a prayer that accompanies them from cradle to grave, and well it should, because it is the perfect encapsulation of the meaning of all the law. Why follow God’s commandments? Because this is how we love God.

We know that the Pharisees are asking this question to trip Jesus up. they want to see if he will answer differently, to say that the most important thing is armed rebellion against the Romans or political action or putting a lot of money in the offering basket when he passes it around after his miracles…They want him to say something they can use to create a wedge between him and God the Father, but of course his entire will is bent to doing his Father’s will, which means that all his devotion and adoration belongs to his Father. There’s no way this question could possibly have confused Our Lord or drawn a controversial answer from him. His heart was in his Father’s hands from the very beginning.

His love for his Heavenly Father was so great that he allowed it to drive him into the wilderness. With great humility he fell from heaven into our human existence, and here on earth he suffered, felt the pangs of hunger, the sting of betrayal, and ultimately bled out into the dirt of Golgotha as the entire universe darkened in fear. When he asks Peter, “Do you love me?” This is what he’s asking. Will you die for me? Will you make your life a sacrifice for others?

The question isn’t only for Peter. God asks the same of us. Do you love me? Where is your heart? As human beings created in his image, we are given this choice, we are called to love, but that is so hard! Love is a gamble. It’s marching into the wilderness where we’ll probably get good and lost. Can you work it out with a spouse when it seems all you do is fight? Hold your tongue when a person talks about you behind your back? Can you love the terrorists who persecute the Church? Love the abortionists and the satanists? Love those who annoy you so much your blood pressure goes up just being in the same room with them? Love those who have hurt you, those who don’t love you in return?It certainly makes life harder, and we find our priorities are radically re-shaped by this prayer that is seemingly simple and obvious -“Love the Lord your God with all your heart.”

Recently we celebrated the traditional feast day of the English Martyrs, to whom I have a particular devotion because many of them prayed for and guided me in my own conversion to Catholicism. These martyrs lived in 17th century England under the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and included men such as Robert Southwell who was Shakespeare’s cousin, and Edmund Campion. Campion as a young man at Oxford was not an active Catholic, in fact it was illegal and impossible to practice Catholicism at the time because any priest discovered by the Queen’s spies would be put to death simply for the crime of being a priest. So Campion had conformed to the English Church and, in fact, was so intelligent and well-regarded that he was given the honor of giving a speech to the Queen when she visited the University and he was widely considered a rising star and a potential future Archbishop of Canterbury. But Campion had what I would call a disastrous encounter with the love of God. He converted and so was set on the path for martyrdom. At that time, all the Englishmen who wanted to become priests would go overseas to France or Italy to attend seminary and be ordained. Some never went home again. Some sneaked back into England and offered Mass in secret locations at night, hiding in holes in the walls of houses the rest of the time. These priests never lasted more than a few years. This was the fate of Edmund Campion when he returned. He was eventually caught, tortured, and put to a gruesome death that I don’t even really want to describe. I mention him, though, because while in hiding he wrote a remarkable letter to the Queen. The letter, known as “Campion’s Brag,” assures Elizabeth that he and the priests who bled out for love of God and England were also dying because they loved her. He writes that they will, “cheerfully carry the cross you shall lay upon us, and never despair your recovery, while we have a man left…to be racked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons. The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God; it cannot be withstood. So the faith was planted: So it must be restored.” In other words, even as she was murdering them, they were praying for her and hoping she would repent and return to the Church.

We may each of us wonder at times when life has us down – Why am I afflicted? The answer? Because God loves you. He sees a life beyond this one and is attempting to fit you to it, to take you out of your own will and conform you to Christ. God’s love is destructive; the old person you were is drowned in the waters of baptism. Out of that emerges a new person whose heart is turned in an entirely new direction. Our life with him does not end at the beginning, though – He sees it through. This is why Christianity is such a great adventure and the force of it is enough to propel men like Campion to die for their faith, and why it can seem to demand so much and seem so daunting. As the poet George Herbert puts it, we are racked from dust to infinity. In other words, we pick up our Cross as an act of love and walk with it all the way to Heaven.

Whoever loves me will keep my word, says the Lord,
and my Father will love him and we will come to him.

What do we owe to each other?

tiberius

Year A Ordinary 29

My favorite President of all time, Calvin Coolidge, was once asked at the end of his term what he was most proud of about his administration. He replied, “We minded our own business.” Coolidge was a classic New England Puritan personality, very frugal, very quiet, the type of person who believes that good fences make good neighbors. I appreciate what he’s getting at in a big picture sense, but when it comes to the way that we interact with each other on a personal level, we may have to part ways.

Our Lord has a saying of his own, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” The first half of the saying is easy – pay your taxes, be a good citizen, follow the law. The second half is the real challenge. The question really is, what do we owe to God? What is it we are meant to give him? And further, because the commandment doesn’t end with “Love the Lord your God,” but continues, “…and your neighbor,” – What is it that we owe to each other?

The coin that Our Lord shows bearing the image of Caesar indicates that we have freedom. Not everything is politics or economics and we aren’t trapped by the society in which we dwell. No, we are free from the whims of this present age and are not captive to think like the world thinks, to be tossed about by the pressures of social opinion. We are in the world, yes, we give what we owe, but ultimately we are free of this world. What Caesar wants is not actually all that valuable.

The image of God is not on a coin but is imprinted on a treasure of far more value. Your very soul is crafted in his likeness, endowed with his supernatural ability to love, to seek beauty, to make decisions of your own free will, to dream about the future, and find your heart moved by memories of the past. These faculties are worth far more than money and they are not captive to this world. They arrive directly from God as his gift to us and they are what we owe him in return. The human heart is the coin of the kingdom of heaven.

God asks for the treasure of our heart, but this is a transaction that is conducted out of freedom, too, a freedom that expresses itself in our responsibility to each other. God will not entrap us, but his image places a certain weight upon us to not abandon each other.

Pope St. John Paul II has written a book called Love and Responsibility in which he links those two concepts together. He writes, “Love consists of a commitment which limits one’s freedom – it is a giving of the self, and to give oneself means just that: to limit one’s freedom on behalf of another.” In other words, we owe each other our love, because, as he later says, this is the only authentic way to truly relate to another person. Each person is made for the precise purpose of giving and receiving love. This means that at times we willingly limit our own desires for the sake of others. God’s economy is a strange one, though, and when you give something away it doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have it anymore. St. John Paul goes on, “Limitation of one’s freedom might seem to be something negative and unpleasant, but love makes it a positive, joyful and creative thing. Freedom exists for the sake of love.”

What is it that we owe to God? What is it that we owe to each other? God gives us the best part. He gives us his very Son to die on the Cross for us. He has called each one by name, chosen you, created you in his image for the sake of this sacrifice, an act of redemption so that we may be entirely his and he may be entirely ours. It isn’t taxes. It isn’t duty. It’s responsibility, and it is a gift.

The philosopher Jordan Peterson talks about what he calls the “pathological” obsession we seem to have with defending our rights and individual freedom to act in whatever way we please. It’s this attitude, “I owe nothing to any man.” We do what we have to do out of duty, but fight it every step of the way. This is the way that Caesar thinks. We weren’t made for Caesar, though, we were made by the God who is love in his very essence.

Give to God what is God’s. Don’t seek to evade giving what you owe. Jordan Peterson says, “Pick up the heaviest thing you can and carry it.” Give the best of yourself and you will be an overwhelming force for good. You may not be perfect yet, but despite any inadequacies you will achieve greatness and discover how beautiful God’s economy is, for it is based in the one, true, eternal reality that is etched into the very structure of your soul, that you were made by God, in his image, and he will render any cost for your salvation.

Bring gifts, and enter his courts.