Why we cannot know everything about God

thoughtsYear A Ordinary 25

God’s thoughts are not ours. St. Dionysius says that God, “is…as no other being is. Cause of all existence, and therefore… transcending existence.” God alone can say who he is. We cannot. This is why Job stands speechless before the whirlwind, why Moses hides his face before the Glory of Yahweh, the high priest in the temple only entered the Holy of Holies once a year to approach the Mercy Seat.

Have you ever been totally confused by Church teaching? I remember my eyes glazing over when I sat through a 2-hour lecture on the nature of the Trinity in seminary. Or has there been a traumatic event in your life and you wonder why God allowed it to happen? Or is it just plain frustrating that you can’t understand everything?

I know when I first read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it opened up my eyes and made our beliefs seem so complete and simple. I thought I knew everything, then I read it again, then I read St. Thomas Aquinas, and then I realized that I know nothing. God is a mystery and none of us will ever fully understand Him! Or, even though I’ve been training for years, I still learn new facts about some symbolic action that takes place in the mass. I’m a priest I’m supposed to know this stuff!

For instance, I recently learned about how to hold the fractured host in one piece again at the “Behold, the lamb of God. The reason is because when the priest breaks the bread over the chalice, he puts a small fragment into the wine itself, which symbolizes the reunification of the Body and Blood of Christ in his resurrection, so when the Eucharist is held over the chalice right after that the visual symbol of the whole host put back together is fitting.

The Mass is mysterious, the Scriptures are living and active and always seem new and fresh, God himself has endless depths. None of these will ever be fully explored by us or completely mastered. I suppose that’s why faith is described as a pilgrimage. We seek the end of the journey but there’s always one more step to take.

That’s a good thing.

It means that the God we worship is not the product of our own minds, he vastly exceeds our imagination. By definition he will be a mystery. God is not held captive by any philosophy or definition. He is as high as the Heavens are above the earth.

And yet, the Catechism itself begins with the question: “Why did God make you?” The answer: “God made me to know him, to love him, and to serve him in this world, and to be happy with him for ever in heaven.” To say that God’s thoughts are not like ours isn’t to say that we know nothing, or should stop studying and seeking him.

Here’s how it works, this entire universe is an analogy. Have you ever done those tests where you have to answer, “ROCK is to mineral and BIRD is to ________? That’s what we mean by analogy. Another, maybe simpler example of analogy is present in the way we speak every day. People tell me all the time I’m a pain in the neck. Now that isn’t a literal statement, but it might be a true one, because I am like a pain in the neck. People are simply assuring me that I’m annoying.

We know that the world is full of beauty, and hope, and love. That the sacraments bring us new life, and grace, and holiness. These virtues are analogies, showing us that all of these come from God, they are a part of him, and show us what he is like. They are true insights and participations in his very nature, they make us one with him, and somehow the part contains the whole.

This is why St. Paul says that life and death don’t really matter to him. He has God here in the fullness of the sacrament, he has God in the life to come in the fullness of the beatific vision. Or why Our Lord describes heaven in the context of a story or a comparison to something like a vineyard. This is why the sacraments are so simple and yet so profound. The Eucharist shows us a meal, and it truly becomes our spiritual food, our source of life.

We may not know everything, but that’s because we are in God’s story, right now, as he’s telling it. We are precious thoughts in the mind of the divine, and what we experience here on earth is but a foretaste of the heavenly kingdom. So when you’re struggling with how strange his ways can be, or totally baffled by a Scripture passage, or sometimes we even begin to think that we know better than God, we remember that his thoughts are higher than ours, and signs of his love are all around. Sometimes knowledge is lacking, but that’s because he has reached down from a higher realm, he has come close to us, taken on our flesh and redeemed us, and is guiding us toward a destiny beyond anything we can dream or imagine.

The Lord is near to all who call upon him

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How forgiveness and your last days are related

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Year A Proper 24

In 1994, the genocide in Rwanda kicked into high gear. An estimated 1 million people were murdered that year. Now, over 20 years later, the marks of that event remain, but they are slowly being healed. They aren’t merely fading with the passage of time (it isn’t always true that time heals all wounds), but through the active and difficult work of forgiveness. One example is a photographer named Pieter Hugo, who works for a charitable organization, and whose job is to take a series of photos, each depicting just two people. Seems easy, right? But getting the two sort of people he has in mind together is a miracle, because each pair is made up of a past killer and someone who has been affected by that person’s violence.

In one photo, a woman rests her hand on the shoulder of the man who killed her father and brothers. In another, a woman poses with the man who stole all her property and whose father helped murder her husband and children. Part of the process of putting the two together for a photo is that the victim agrees to forgive. The one in need of forgiveness often brings an offering of a food basket and they seal their reconciliation with a ritual song. If you look at the resulting photographs, they depict tender moments of human vulnerability in which the sadness of past mistakes, of the destruction and violence of the past, remains etched into the look in their eyes. Sins against each other can never be completely erased because what has happened has happened. Many of the victims seem tense and perhaps want to run away, and yet there they are. They have forgiven their enemies.

Why? One of the survivors explains, “When someone is full of anger, he can lose his mind. But when I granted forgiveness, I felt my mind at rest.” Holding grudges and nurturing hate is a prison.

I read this story in the New York Times and contrast it with my own lack of forgiveness in smaller situations, like if someone sits by me at the movie theater and starts loudly eating popcorn, or takes the last donut out of the box, and I wonder why forgiveness is so difficult, and why it feels so good to cut someone out of our lives with a sense of righteous indignation.

There are so many times when quarrels or perceived wrongs become long-running opportunities to cultivate enemies and withhold reconciliation. Someone did something I don’t like, or said something about me, or someone said someone said something about me, or they voted for the wrong politician, or whatever. There’s always that person at work who seems to be undermining me with the boss, or the group of people who form a clique and separate themselves at family gatherings. The list goes on. It doesn’t take a genocide for lack of forgiveness to infect our lives.

But if it feels so good and justifiable to refuse forgiveness (because of course, I’m right and they’re wrong!), why does Our Lord insist that we forgive? In fact, that we forgive as many times as we are hurt. Every. Single. Time?

06rwanda_ss-slide-CIF0-superJumboThe story he tells clues us in, the man who refuses to forgive ends up discovering that he is locked out of the Kingdom of Heaven. Sirach echoes this, saying, “Remember your last days, and put enmity aside.” This is why the Rwandan man describes forgiveness as putting his mind at rest. He was being driven to distraction by the responsibility of maintaining his hate for his enemies. Even if that hate is well-placed, it eventually affects us when we give in to it. It warps our sense of who we are and why we are here on this earth.

Anger, hate, and grudge-holding is about more than that other person, what they deserve or don’t deserve. Look, let’s face it, forgiveness is never deserved or earned. God doesn’t demand that we earn his forgiveness, so we shouldn’t demand that anyone else earn ours. Lack of forgiveness is far more serious and fundamental to the human soul than we think it is. It’s a distraction, blinding us and causing a total loss of perspective. We get wrapped up in the here and now, in maintaining our own control of the situation and power to dispense mercy (or not) on another person so much that we forget who we are and to where we are heading.

Remember your last days, and forgive. The connection is clear. Do you remember that caricature of a Hamlet, holding a skull and declaiming, “To be, or not to be,” as he questions his whole existence? That skull is a Memento Mori, a reminder that everyone someday will die. Steadfastly refusing forgiveness to another is a species of selfishness that functions as a sort of denial of death. It’s a way of claiming my reality is centered on me alone, there is nothing more important than what I desire or want right now. I do not feel like forgiving, I have a right to not forgive, so I won’t. Technically, I may even be within my rights to think such a way, but at what a cost! I have turned my eyes from the life after this one and judged that what happens here and now is more important, that it is more important for me to have satisfaction now than to forgive and allow God to judge in the last days.

Whatever is going on in your life, whether you feel you have been treated unfairly or have been taken advantage of, if someone has done you harm or offended you, remember that it is all in God’s hands. He has made a covenant with us, to always forgive us when we ask, to always love us, and to bring us safely to Heaven. Sirach says, “Remember the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults.”

There are already so many distractions in life that keep us from finding our true purpose, don’t let lack of forgiveness become another, to take your eyes away from what truly matters. Obviously, when we’re not at peace with someone it causes stress and uncertainty. Consider Our Lord hanging on the Cross, surrounded by chaos, the life ebbing out of him, and he uses that very moment to forgive. He is calm, compassionate, unafraid. The universe, says the poet TS Eliot, is always in movement and there is no solid ground on which to find ourselves, but there is always a fulcrum, a still, quiet place around which everything revolves. Our Lord is that still place at the center. No matter who or what is vexing you, know that Jesus is right there with you, holding you close, and he will be your resting place.

Unity with Christ demands unity with his Church

40a445f4089e06924e168f2b8c67a590Year A Ordinary 23

I often hear different priests or parishes described as, “Oh, they’re a bunch of conservatives or liberals,” or, “They hate Vatican II or they wish Vatican II had changed a whole lot more.” Partly because I’m a convert, I’m a bit of an outsider to this type of discussion, and this example of the fractures in the Catholic Church bothers me, because this is the one place where, out of all places, there ought to be unity. Not that we’re all the same, or that when Pope Francis says to jump we ask how high, but that we accept and love each other regardless of our diversity of opinion. In fact, we love each other in part because of our diversity of opinion, we all have so much to offer each other that is unique and beautiful.

Now, I know that I certainly fall short in many ways and sin against the unity of the Body of Christ by labeling people and saying or acting in divisive ways. If we’re honest with ourselves, this is a vice we can all spend a lifetime working to eliminate. This isn’t a new problem, or unique to our time and place. In the early Church, there were debates so fierce that at one point, St. Nicholas (Yes, Santa Claus) got so angry that he punched another bishop in the face. Another early Bishop, St. Cyprian, once got so heated during debate that he afterwards had to repent and write a whole book about becoming more patient during disagreements. In Our Gospel this morning, Our Lord talks about how disagreements in the Church can become sources of division. When that division takes root, it drives out the presence of God and replaces it with our own egos. This is a disaster because, if what is bound on earth is bound in heaven, division among the faithful on earth reverberates throughout the entire Body of Christ.

When Satan wants to attack, he first begins by dividing. That’s his best tactic and the one that he used so effectively against Adam and Eve, sowing enmity between them and God, then between each other, and finally even between them and creation. His aim is to separate us from God, and he will do so by any means necessary. You might be thinking, I’ll never have unity with that person (you know who you are) 3 pews up. But here’s the thing – you already do. We’re already in this together.

There are 3 ways that Satan tries to divide us:

  1. Hold grudges and gossip

  2. Act rashly without considering others

  3. Judge others

There are 3 remedies for those specific problems:

  1. Forgiveness

  2. Patience and communication

  3. Humility, especially to not judge the motives of others

This is what Our Lord asks of us when we have disagreements, and it’s the effort of a lifetime to put these directives in practice. This isn’t about self-help skills or how to become a likeable person in 3 easy steps, it’s about the accountability that have to each other, to the Church, and to Our Lord.

God unites, his goal in taking on human flesh is to bring us back to heaven with him, to knit us into a common priesthood. Our worship is centered around a sacrament of unity, the Eucharist, through which we share the same Body and Blood. St. Augustine calls it, “O Sacrament of Love! O sign of Unity! O bond of Charity! He who would have Life finds here indeed a Life to live in and a Life to live by.” If you listen, before the consecration the Roman Canon (by which I mean the Eucharistic prayer) asks for unity. Our lives are buried with Christ and raised with him, when we receive the Blessed Sacrament we receive it as a sign of our Oneness.

Our common identity springs from this deep source, the person of Jesus Christ. Not from marching in lockstep about what hymns we like, or which denominational beliefs we line up with the best. We are here because of God-made-flesh, who took on all of humanity and redeemed us down to the very last sinner.

Being united to Christ means that we are also united to his Church, for he has made himself one flesh with her and he loves her. This means that we have unity here with each other in this parish but also with the whole Church, with our bishop, and we are united with the entirety of the Catholic and apostolic faith: those who came before, those who will come after, all the saints in heaven…

This Church doesn’t belong to you and me, she belongs to Jesus, he is our beginning and end, and we are all accountable to Him, called to enter into a deeper reality based in the divine love. St. Paul says that this is the fulfillment of the law. St. Andrew of Crete elaborates, saying, “The fulfillment of the law is Christ himself, who does not so much lead us away from the letter as lift us up to its spirit…this is the revelation of the mystery, this is the emptying out of the divine nature, the union of God and man.”

Christ is at the heart, and he unites us in love. Love, remember, bears all things, forgives all things, is patient, gentle, and kind. It is the tapping finger that knocks day and night at the gate of our soul. Don’t take it for granted. Don’t allow Satan a foothold. Don’t grow accustomed and immune to God’s love. He is in our midst, granting us one heart and one mind – and it is truly a miracle.

Why does being Catholic put us at odds with the world?

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Year A Ordinary 22

I remember, about 15 years ago, feeling like God had tricked me after I became Anglican and moved to New Haven, Connecticut.

I started out as a good, Midwestern Pentecostal at Oral Roberts University where the men had to wear ties to class and dancing was forbidden. The amount of beer I’ve seen our Men’s Club drink in a single evening is more than the entire campus at ORU consumed in an entire year. While there, I started my journey towards Catholicism by being received into the Anglican Church, which in some ways is very close. I thought at the time that I was, in a way, becoming Catholic but that’s a long, different story.

Then I managed to get into Yale Divinity School and moved to New Haven, where the two viable political parties in our city elections were the Democrats and the Communists. In seminary I found myself in class with atheists and could only get into the building by sneaking past a group of protesters because some professor said he didn’t like women priests, and I swear there was a sort of plant-mother-earth worship thing going on in the chapel once. My New Testament professor swore she would fail anyone who tried to argue in a term paper that miracles are real. I seriously almost had a nervous breakdown.

This is all to say, when I read the prophet Jeremiah complain to God, “You duped me!” I nod my head in sympathy. I thought I was following God’s plan for my life and I was suffering all sorts of discomforts as a result. Looking back on it, I probably was following God’s plan for my life and was suffering all sorts of discomforts as a result. Have you ever had that experience, where, in order to obey God you ended up suffering? That doesn’t mean you made a bad choice or are being punished – it means that you took up your Cross.

To follow Our Lord means being permanently at odds with the world. Jeremiah was so annoyed by this that he decided to retire. He writes, “I will speak in his name no more.” He can’t help himself, though! “But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones”

St. Paul knows the same truth, that to follow Jesus means a radical departure from life as usual. He encourages us, “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”

Leo Tolstoy, the Russian author, once wrote a short story about a king who asks his priests to show him God. When they can’t figure out to do so, a shepherd coming in from the fields steps forward and tells the king that his eyes aren’t good enough to see God, but the king persists. “Then we must exchange our clothes,” says the shepherd. The king gives his royal robes to the shepherd and has himself dressed in the poor man’s simple garments. “This is what God does,” says the shepherd.

The theologian Von Balthasar sums it up, saying to God, “You make us rich, and then again, you make us poor.”

Why does being Catholic put us at odds with the world? Why does it in many ways make us poor? Our faith causes tension, to hold our beliefs dear and run the risk of being called bigots or fundamentalists, to struggle with our own sin and vice when it would be so much easier to simply float along and feel no guilt about anything. Why is it that the Catholic Church is persecuted and martyred?

The answer is simple – The Cross. God is totally Other, and his Kingdom is not of this world, so when he arrives he is an existential threat and must be eliminated. Jesus took up his Cross and we must take up ours. He makes us rich, but then again, he makes us poor.

When Our Lord into our hearts, he brings with him the entirety of the divine presence. That, my friends, is impossible. Grace re-makes all that comes before it, it re-shapes the soul, it spiritually kills and then resurrects us.

It’s hard to explain, because there is so much beauty and goodness in this world. We aren’t meant to abandon it, but we are meant to redeem it, and it is certainly true that there’s an apocalypse lurking nearby, and so all of the beauty of this world points just around the corner to a mysterious reality in which the painful longing and nostalgia of this world are satisfied. Think about how difficult but wonderful the experience is of looking back at old pictures and remembering how much love and happiness there has been in your life while, at the very same time, there is a sense of grief that those days are gone forever and will never, ever return. Pope Benedict XVI says that this is why beauty is like an arrow to the heart, alerting us to the fact that there is a greater beauty out there and we won’t be satisfied until we find it.

This is why the Mass is so beautiful and mysterious, it’s a moment when time and space break apart and an infinite reality becomes present where it ought not be. So we watch in silence, or use symbols such as incense and candles. God is transcendent, totally Other, and his presence is weightier than anything we have ever had laid on our shoulders before.

We are at odds with this world, and always will be, because this world is focused on lesser goods, or even stoops to calling evil good. This world is hurting and anxious, there’s a sense of dread in the air and everyone is trying to stay forever young, to take a million iphone pictures to own a moment forever, to find meaning in goods that are not eternal and thus are not worthy of the dignity of the human soul. We need a goodness and a beauty that is fitting to us. We are eternal, and only God’s eternal goodness is enough. The problem is that the desire is there but the only way to fulfill it is through divine grace, through the sacrifice of the Cross.

This doesn’t rest easy with those who would be their own master, which is why there is enmity, why the prophet is always disliked, why the Catholic Church will always be mocked and reviled and slandered, why we must take up our Cross daily. The world is a dead cistern, God is the fount of life. This world is hungry, God is the bread of life.

In order to bestow his riches upon us, he first must humble us. He isn’t duping us, he is offering the chance to leave behind what is unimportant and enter into the very reason for our creation, which is to live with and love him forever. Don’t weary of holding your Cross, for it is the opportunity to leave behind your old life and step into the new life that God has prepared for you. You may give everything else in this world up, but that’s a trade worth making. He makes us poor, but then again, he makes us rich.