Why comfort leads to mediocrity and how to overcome it

download (6)I remember when I was eight years old learning to play piano. When my lesson started with my teacher, I would suddenly become supremely uncomfortable. It’s like I would forget how to sit. I would shift around on the seat, my leg would shake because I knew the teacher was watching me and it made me nervous, I wouldn’t see the notes on the page. It’s kind of how I was the first time I tried to sing in front of anyone else, my throat tightened up, I couldn’t breathe or stay on pitch, my face got all hot…but now I can, sort of, sing in front of other people. My mom made me stay in piano lessons and learning to overcome my discomfort over time made me really good at playing the piano and I love playing it to this very day.

Here’s another random story, I promise it fits together, though, so stay with me. We all love watching magicians, right? Whenever I see one of those shows on television where magicians do performances, I’m all in. I want to watch David Copperfield make an elephant disappear, and some crazy guy put himself in a straight jacket and escape from it before a speeding train runs over him, and I really love to watch Penn and Teller. Now, Penn is the tall one who does all the talking. But the secret genius of that duo is Teller. When he’s in character, Teller never speaks, but he recently broke his vow of silence and gave an interview about how being a performer is something he actually practiced as a Latin teacher. Before he became a magician, he taught the Aeneid to highschoolers for six years. His job, as he saw it, wasn’t to drill knowledge into unwilling students. His job was to help the students fall in love with Latin, fall in love with the poetry and the stories. It was a performance in which he conveyed the romance of the language. When the interviewer asks him about how learning can be difficult and make us uncomfortable when we struggle with a difficult subject, this is what Teller says, “When I go outside at night and look up at the stars, the feeling that I get is not comfort. The feeling that I get is a kind of delicious discomfort at knowing that there is so much out there that I do not understand and the joy in recognizing that there is enormous mystery, which is not a comfortable thing.” His discomfort caused him to wonder, and like Romeo seeking Juliet, to embark on a journey of discovery.

So, there’s the common theme – Discomfort. We regularly read passages from the Scriptures that are supremely uncomfortable. Our Lord makes very strong statements. St. Paul does the same. It may be something that conflicts with our current cultural assumptions or it may be something that hits a sore spot personally, for me maybe a sin that I struggle with or a virtue that I am lacking, a call to faith when I doubt or even reading about how the crowds react to Jesus and I ask myself how I would have reacted if I’d been in the same position.

These last weeks of Lent, in particular, become very uncomfortable. Today for Palm Sunday we read the Passion narrative and have to ask ourselves some hard questions. Do we deny Christ with our sins? Are we willing to follow him all the way to the Cross? Will we be bold in our faith no matter the obstacles? Will we give up or will we persevere?

Pope Benedict XVI once said something I think about every day, “You were not made for comfort, you were made for greatness.”

Being comfortable is the opposite of why we are here on this earth. Comfort is a drive-through window, binge watching-television shows, and mediocrity. It is going with the flow, never seeking to go deeper in faith, giving up quickly in prayer. Religion is not comfortable. Becoming a saint is not comfortable.

Think about your life – learning to play piano, doing well in school, being a parent in charge of a precious little life, doing work you’re proud of, achieving personal goals, fighting for a cause you believe in – none of this is comfortable. It all takes serious commitment, and nerve, and risk.

It can be very tiring, and so easy to give up. I’m going to be very transparent with you all. I love being a priest 99% of the time. 1% of the time, I have a moment. I’ve said 3 masses that day, sat with someone who was dying, had to deal with a complaint, and end up emotionally wrecked and questioning all my choices. Some of you may empathize. It’s the sort of day when the boss treats you unfairly, traffic was stressful getting home, and as soon as you walk in the door the kids are in the middle of a screaming match. When we feel like that, the urge is to quit.

God didn’t create us to quit, though, he created us to overcome all obstacles. Jesus, the perfect example of human greatness, walks that path before us, suffering, carrying his Cross, his unbearable sorrow, the perfect picture of discomfort. But look again, because underneath the struggle is the perfection of his love, the willingness to share our discomfort. Locked away in that mysterious, eternal love that he has for us is the key to the joy and wonder of reconciliation with God and entrance into eternal life. Those who are uncomfortable now for sake of Jesus will later be exalted.

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The Arrow of Time

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There’s a theory in philosophy called the Arrow of Time which says that, because of entropy, time is like an arrow that only points in one direction. A lot of mathematical formulas are timeless, meaning that if you reverse them, the math still works, but time doesn’t seem to work like that. If we reversed a movie it wouldn’t make any sense, or if an effect came before the cause we would be very much baffled.

Time isn’t that simple, though. There is another theory that what we call time is actually far more complicated. Yes there’s a basic, physical level at which one thing happens after another with a steady forward flow, but this is reductive because it lacks all the rich features of what we call time. For example, St. Augustine says, “There are three times [that]…coexist somehow in the soul, for otherwise I could not see them…[the] past is memory; the…present is direct experience; the…future is expectation.” This is one of the gifts that God has given us as human beings. Animals don’t possess it. We have a peculiar, three-fold manner in which we experience time. Everything is colored by the past and shaped by the future, and it’s all telescoped through our experience of the present moment.

A few weeks ago on March 15 the poet W.S. Merwin died at the age of 91. He was a really interesting guy, born in New York but lived most of his life on an old pineapple plantation in Hawaii. Merwin once wrote a poem called, “For the Anniversary of My Death,” in which he writes, “Every year without knowing it I have passed the day/ When the last fires will wave to me…Then I will no longer/Find myself in life as in a strange garment.” Every year of his life, he passed the anniversary of the day he would die, all of of us do. For 91 years, he celebrated March 15 without knowing it, the day he transitioned from the strange garment that is life in this world and into his eternal home. It’s a strange way to think about it, but he is honoring the anticipation, the hope for his future self and when he will finally see God face to face.

It’s a challenging perspective, but there’s wisdom in it, because fundamental truths about ourselves are only revealed through loss, and the most important moment of revelation is not in the past, not in our birth, but in the future, at our death. When everything seems to be taken away, that is when we see who we really are. The supreme instance of this is at the Cross, where God is finally and inarguably revealed to be love itself. It is the sacrifice that makes it clear.

In the very last poem of his last published book. Merwin leaves us a meditation on departure. He writes about Adam and Eve as they leave Eden; “As they were leaving the garden,” he writes, “one of the angels bent down to them and whispered/I am to give you this.” And the angel gives them the gift of time, the ability to live in the present moment. It’s a gift that takes away, allowing us to inhabit each moment in plenitude but also marking our inability to hold onto it as it slides past. The horizon of past, present, and future is shifting sand and we are always in the middle term. We step out of the Garden and into the present, but the birth that brought us to this place has also delineated our boundaries. The special, intuitive knowledge we have into the inner heart of nature and the flow of time through the universe brings with it the sorrow and fear of death. It is the gift that opens our eyes to the great I AM to whom we bow our heads each moment we hear a wren sing, grieve the buds of a magnolia tree broken down by a spring storm, or wait in silence before the Blessed Sacrament.

The Prophet Isaiah hears God say, “Remember not the events of the past,/ the things of long ago consider not;/ see, I am doing something new!/ Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” St. Paul, in his own rugged way, says the same when he exclaims that, “Everything is loss compared to Christ.” Jesus is not a figure of the past, the Mass is not a remembrance of what once was, it is a participation in the present moment, the precise moment that Christ is crucified and raised from the dead. It is the true sacrifice that stretches out beyond the limits of time, and it connects us with the resurrected Christ who inhabits all times and all places.

When we hold onto the past – say to ourselves I wish this hadn’t happened, wish I’d never made that choice, if I could go back I’d do everything different, that sort of thinking – if we hold onto that and identify ourselves by past mistakes or limitations, this is a huge mistake. The past is not who you are. Boy, I think back to the way I behaved in the past, the things I’ve said and done, and I am mortally embarrassed. I want to dig a hole in the ground and curl up there and never come out, but this is not the Christian attitude. We do not dwell on the past, what might have been, what mistakes were made. No, we confess our sins, forgive each other, leave the old, broken self behind to put on the new self, set our eyes to the east and the rising Sun that is Jesus Christ, and embrace the new day.

St, Paul compares his faith to an all-out pursuit. We must do so open-handed with no looking back. A.W Tozer talks about how difficult this can be, writing, “The ancient curse will not go out painlessly; the tough old miser within us will not lie down and die in obedience to our command. He must be torn out of our heart like a plant from soil…expelled…as Christ expelled the money changers from the temples.” Pursue Christ with everything you have, because only through him is the past transformed into gratitude, the future into hope, and the present moment into pure joy.

Without Jesus, time is a burden. The past never forgets and the future is aimless. It’s kind of like we’re standing there in solidarity with the woman from our Gospel reading while an angry crowd shouts at us, everything wrong about us from the past, why we have no future. This is why on this day, which we call Passion Sunday, we cover our statues. A veil is drawn over our senses and we experience deprivation as a small reminder of what life is like in the absence of God and the saints. The senses are blinded to the full glory of God, but he is ready to burst forth from the grave and the veils are removed at the Easter Vigil.

Jesus reconciles time. While the crowds foment, he draws in the dirt, simply waiting. In him the past, present, and future are gathered up into eternity, and the ticking of the clock is not an arrow that relentlessly pushes us to the end. God is the eternal now. Jesus is living and active. The Holy Spirit makes boundless grace somehow fit into our heart such that we have already begun to take steps toward heaven. We join Our Lord in the suffering of the Cross, in loss, and that is how we attain the resurrection of the dead, that glorious moment, that instant of time when eternity finally rips the veil aside and spills into our world.

The moral of the Prodigal Son isn’t what you think it is

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Pope Francis consecrating the Eucharist

During the Second World War, in the German death camp at Dachau where hundreds of priests were imprisoned, they weren’t allowed to say the Mass and they had no supplies to say Mass, no bread or wine. So what they did was create strategies to obtain what they needed. One way was to have a nun smuggle the supplies in during a monthly visit. This nun, name Madi, did this for years at great personal risk to herself if she was caught. Another strategy was that the priests, when in the fields doing slave labor for the Nazis, would pilfer small amounts of ripe ears of wheat. They would then secretly dry and crush the grains to make bread. During their secret Masses, they would consecrate a tiny fragment of bread and a few drops of wine so they could have as many Masses as possible with their meager supplies.

Father Walter Ciszek, a priest who was imprisoned in the Communist Gulag in Russia, tells a similar tale. He says, “The priests…daily consecrated hosts and arranged for the distribution of Communion…everyone observed a strict Eucharistic fast from the night before, passing up a chance for breakfast and working all morning on an empty stomach. Yet no one complained…the priest would say Mass in his working clothes, unwashed, disheveled, bundled up against the cold. We said Mass in drafty storage shacks, or huddled in mud and slush in the corner of a building site…”

The Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith. It is why we are here. Sometimes, when I’m about to say a third mass in a day and I’m tired, I take that fact for granted, but then here are these Catholics in prison camps and they are willing to go to any length to receive what I am very casual about. The Eucharist is so important to us because religion is not about what we have created, it is not about us being good people, how good the music is or that our friends are here, or that we have the best coffee hour and fish fry in the city. Religion is Jesus. Jesus is the Eucharist. The catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that it is really him – his Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. His humanity is present and so is his divinity. He has gone to extraordinary lengths to be with us, and his presence cannot be taken for granted.

Here’s our reading from the book of Joshua. Joshua, by the way, is the leader of the Israelites directly after Moses. Moses dies without actually entering into the promised land, and it is Joshua who leads the people in. Moses represents the Old Covenant which must be completed by the new covenant. In Hebrew, the names Joshua and Jesus are the same, so it is Jesus who fulfills the first covenant and leads the people over that threshold into heaven. Our reading describes the final day of the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land. It says:

On the day after the Passover,

they ate of the produce of the land

in the form of unleavened cakes and parched grain.

On that same day after the Passover,

on which they ate of the produce of the land, the manna ceased.

The Passover is the final meal they eat before entering Paradise, and the next day, the very next day, they consume the unleavened cakes, the new manna. This is the Eucharistic feast. So what we have is a symbolic foreshadowing of the Crucifixion of Christ, the Passover Lamb slain to deliver the people from death, and how that sacrificial offering is made present to the people through the Eucharist on the very next day as the fruit of the Promised Land.

The Eucharist is central and it acts as the transitional point from earth to heaven. It re-presents both the Passover and the Promised Land, both the Cross and the Resurrection, Soul and Divinity.

The Eucharist, when received by a person who is approaching death, is called Viaticum, or Food for the Journey. In Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien describes how the elves give the hobbits a nourishing food called Waybread to take with them. The Waybread keeps Frodo and Sam alive and strong as they make their way to Mordor to destroy the ring of power. Tolkien makes clear that the ring is destroyed on March 25, the Solemnity of the Annunciation, the day Christ is conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. It is the power of Christ Incarnate that destroys sin. It is his nourishing Body and Blood that strengthens us to battle sin within our own hearts.

The story of the Prodigal Son also references the Heavenly Feast. When the wayward Son repents and returns, the Father runs to him and makes a great feast ready. The older Son remains separate from the feast because he feels the whole thing is unfair. Here’s the kind of shocking moral of that story; the older son, the one who does everything right and follows all the rules, ends up excluded from the Eucharistic feast. Why? Because he has attempted to control God and earn his way into heaven, to force his father’s hand, saying, “I did everything right now give me what I deserve.” But none of us deserves anything. The only answer is to behave like the Prodigal Son, not in the depth of his rebellion, but rather, having rebelled, having noticed just how far we are from God with our sins and our pride, that we turn and run back to him begging for mercy. The moral of the Prodigal Son is that morals alone aren’t enough, because everything is grace.

That space in-between is where we find ourselves, between repentance and the eternal feast of heaven, still dying to our old selves but the new is already arriving. As we approach the gate of heaven, how do we keep from starving? Turn to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Receive him reverently, adore him, make your heart ready to receive him. The Eucharist is precious. It is holy. Fr Ciszek says, “I would go to any length, suffer any inconvenience, run any risk to make the bread of life available to these men.” In it, the sacrifice of Christ and his resurrection are united, his love and his glory. The Eucharist, food for the journey, strengthens us to take that next step towards Heaven.

Taste and see the goodness of the Lord

Why is there something instead of nothing

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Have any of you ever been caught in a discussion with a child – and kids, I know you think this is so funny because when I was your age I would do this to my parents – where a child asks you “Why,” as many times as they possibly can? It always devolves into metaphysical, philosophical madness. First, Why is the sky blue? Well, because the sunlight refracts a certain way in the atmosphere. Why does it bend? Because light is made of us different wave lengths. Why is light made of wave lengths? I guess because that’s how a photon particle moves. Why are there photon particles? Because everything has to be made of something, kid. Why? I don’t know, because if there wasn’t something, then we would all be nothing? Why? Because some things ARE and some things ARE NOT [fyi I adapted this bit from a comedian] And the child looks at you and is about to say, “Why” again but before that happens your head explodes and you drift into a psychological crisis while the kid skips off to play video games.

You’re all about to feel like that.

At the Burning Bush, Moses asks God for his name. Names are a powerful thing in the scriptures. To name something means you comprehend it. To bestow a name, like Adam and Eve do for the animals, or like God does for, say Abraham, is to show a paternal benevolence. The father names his child. God cannot be comprehended and he is certainly not our child, so in the Jewish tradition, he cannot be named and is only referred to as Yahweh. Yahweh, spelled in Hebrew with four letters – YHWH – is referred to as the tetragrammaton It isn’t his name, only a placeholder that refers to him. Moses wants to know his real, actual name. To possess that name would be a sign of authority to lead the Israelites. But God doesn’t have a name. Instead, Moses is given a metaphysical mystery in response. Metaphysics, by the way, is the study of the underlying principles of reality. It’s the way Plato and Aristotle ask the classic child’s question, “Why is there something instead of nothing.”

God’s answer refers to the reality that upholds everything that we know and everything that we are. He says I AM WHO AM.

In other words, God is the principle by which all things exist. He is existence itself. The essence of who he is, his very nature, is to exist. Now, that’s different than the concept of say, an apple. If you think real hard right now you can imagine an apple. That apple in your mind does not exist, it’s just an idea, or it may exist now at home on your kitchen counter but won’t exist after you eat it. Every thing in this world, including you and me, is given existence by God. We exist by his grace and we participate in his existence, but he is the source. He is the one who must exist and always will exist.

When we draw close to God, we draw close not only to the Holy Spirit and Our Lord and Savior, but also to our Heavenly Father who generates our creation. He has an intimate connection with us because he has shared a piece of himself with us. When Moses encounters the Burning Bush, notice that it is God who calls out, it is God who makes Moses notice. It is existence itself seeking him out and drawing him more deeply into the divine life.

The Burning Bush is an icon of the Blessed Virgin, the way in which God is birthed of her and yet she remains a virgin. The action of God upon us is such that it sets us afire without overcoming who we are as individuals. We become one with him through grace, and the relationship is the same as the way in which man and wife become one. The important point, though, is that once we realize the connection of the Burning Bush and Mary, we come to understand that it is Jesus Christ, born of her womb, through whom the God who is all existence and all power has made himself small so that he can walk among us and call out to us, so that like a Good Shepherd he can seek us and find us and bring us home.

Individual existence is unique, God gives each person an integrity of being, I am me, and you are you. We don’t blend together in some sort of mystical blob of super-holy magma, but God knits us together into the Body of Christ, a spiritual unity that goes deeper than whatever we can ever imagine.

It is the fullness of existence that is revealing itself and embracing us. When we turn away, refuse to credit God as our creator, attempt to control what happens, we quickly find that being in control is an illusion. We also find that sin is not power, it is alienation and it draws us further from existence and towards the darkness of hell. God is life, sin is death.

One of the lies that the Devil tells us is that we are alone. We suffer alone, pray alone, make decisions alone, commute to work alone, sit home alone. No one understand anyone else. We’re all looking out for ourselves. The world is a cold, dark, lonely place. From the perspective of a sinner, this is true, because sin puts up barriers.

God’s perspective, though, is that of the Burning Bush. It is the stem and sap of a human being lit afire, made fully alive, drawn into the mystical Body of Christ and into the very heart of existence. We are not alone. We are never alone. The great I AM has come to gather us up.

The most fascinating (and terrifying) passage in the Bible

genesis-15God offers Abram a terrifying path to walk. Look at that Old Testament reading again. God tells Abram to take a variety of animals, chop them in half, and use their bisected bodies to define a path the way we might use boxwood bushes. The path would have been soaked with blood that drained from the carcasses. This is what Abram prepares and then waits until it’s dark. In the dark of night, the presence of God overwhelms him. He has already been shown the vast vault of the heavens powdered with stars. They are as countless as the number of his promised descendants. Now something greater than the stars has arrived, as Dante says, God is the love that moves the sun and the others stars. God takes the form of a flame and the flame passes down along the bloody path.

This is an ancient form of covenant-making, the exact way in which two kings would seal a treaty. Often one of the kings would be lesser than the other and his path through the animal carcasses was a way of becoming a vassal. For this weaker party, the consequences of breaking the covenantal relationship was spelled out in the action itself – blood would flow and the king who betrayed his promises would forfeit his life.

Abraham and God make this treaty, but notice the reversal because it changes everything. In this treaty, it is not the lesser king, Abram, who walks the path. It is God who takes the form of a flame and travels down the path, meaning that God makes a covenant – follow the law, worship me, and you will inherit the universe – and if that covenant is broken, it will not be Abraham or his descendants who will bear the consequences, it is God who will step in and become the sacrifice. Of course, we know how the story ends. We have been unfaithful, and God has stepped in and become the sacrifice to satisfy the terms of the covenant.

Lent is a pilgrimage, it begins with the pilgrimage we talked about last week in which our wandering becomes a purposeful march towards the Promised Land. This is the pilgrimage we make with Christ into the desert. Lent ends with the pilgrimage of Our Lord into Jerusalem and to the Cross. Here, too, we join him on Good Friday.

Lent begins with a promise and ends with a death.

Let’s start with the first part of that – Lent begins with a promise. Abraham is given an end destination to his journey. Follow the covenant and enter into the Promised Land. St. Paul says it much the same way; “Our citizenship is in heaven.” How do we get there, how do we arrive at the fulfillment of the promise? By making a spiritual journey.

Today is actually St. Patrick’s Day. The best and greatest accomplishment of St. Patrick was driving all the serpents from the land because snakes are the absolute worst, but beyond that he made one decision in his life that isn’t very well known but deserves to talked about. When Patrick was a young boy, he was kidnapped from his home in Britain and taken to become a slave in Ireland. St. Patrick is not Irish, but the reason he is so popular in Ireland is because he eventually escaped from slavery and made it back home, and then, from his place of safety and security, he decided to return to Ireland. He went back to the place where he had been enslaved and he evangelized the entire nation. After that, he killed all the snakes. Patrick went on a purposeful journey. He made a journey that was a sort of spiritual death, with the risk of potentially being the cause of his actual death by martyrdom.

Our Lord takes his disciples on a pilgrimage to the top of a hill and there he is transfigured as a sign of what the future holds for those who remain faithful to God’s covenant. They saw the promise. It was as if reality itself ripped apart like a bedsheet and for a brief moment they peered directly into the holy of holies.

That’s the promise. But Lent ends with a death. The hill that Our Lord ascends is essentially an overlapping sign with the hill, Golgotha, that he will later ascend with the Cross, meaning that God’s sacrifice and his glory are the same. His promise to Abraham binds him to this death – that’s the reversal – but God always has a surprise up his sleeve because, if his death is his glory, then it is his blood, his loving sacrifice, which turns out to be God’s total and complete victory over the last gasping attempt of Satan. It is the Cross that fulfills the terms of the covenant and makes forgiveness of sins possible.

So, what does this mean for us?

First of all, it means that God’s promises are strong, and he is faithful. Even when we break our half of the bargain and fall into sin, he is able and willing to forgive.

It also means that, like St. Patrick, if we take upon ourselves a spiritual pilgrimage, yes it means that we will die to ourselves as we follow God’s plan, but in that death is the fulfillment of the promise. Patrick’s selflessness became his crowning glory. When we put to death selfishness, and pride, and attachments to worldly things, as St. Paul puts it, our lowly bodies will be conformed to Christ’s glorified body. This means that, just like Jesus at the transfiguration, it becomes clear that following Christ to the Cross is the way, the only way, in which we attain glory.

If you are bold enough to begin the journey, to set out toward the Promised Land, God will walk that path with you. It may seem terrifying, but he will be with you every step of the way, and he will make complete what he has begun in you.