Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Lord's Healing Touch

The Healing of the Deaf Man, fresco c. 830, Church of St. John Abbey, Müstair, Switzerland

Have you ever wondered why particular stories about Jesus were remembered rather than others? We have four Gospels that are part of the canon of Scripture, and while each of them has aspects different from the others, we also know they often focus on the same stories of Jesus’s life. The evangelist St. John tells us in his Gospel that Jesus did a lot of amazing things and that he had recorded only some of them – if he had tried to write them all down, John said the world itself could not contain all the books that would have to be written. Maybe he was using a bit of hyperbole, but clearly Jesus worked a lot of miracles. Why is it then that some of those stories are passed down to us while others were not?

The answer, I think, is that certain stories had a real resonance with the people of the time. In some cases, this was probably because of the sheer amazement that Jesus’s miracle produced. Think of the raising of Jesus’s friend Lazarus from the dead or the feeding of the five thousand by the multiplication of the loaves. But other stories, in comparison at least, seem more ordinary; nonetheless, something in them made them worth remembering. Our Gospel today is one such story. On the surface, it seems like a fairly minor story – some people bring to Jesus a man who was deaf and who had a speech impediment, and Jesus heals him. Yet something in this story resonated so much with the disciples of Jesus, that it was remembered and recorded and passed down to us.

The key is in our first reading. The prophet Isaiah, speaking to all of Israel, says “Be strong, fear not. Here is your God.” He’s telling the people of Israel that the Lord will rescue them from their current state of trial and tribulation. God himself will come to them to be their salvation. And then, he gives some very specific signs that will announce this coming – namely, the blind will be made to see, the deaf to hear, the lame to walk, and the mute to speak. It’s no accident then that when Jesus comes and begins to do these very things, the Jewish people who knew their religious tradition saw these signs as a clear, unmistakable indication of precisely who Jesus really was. Throughout his ministry, Jesus performed miracles not only because he had compassion for the people that came to him, but also because he wanted to show everyone that the prophesies of Isaiah have been fulfilled in him. God has come, he has entered our world as one of us, and it is through him that we are saved.

Today’s story of the healing of the deaf and mute man clearly resonated with the followers of Jesus, so much in fact that it was one of the relatively few stories included in the Gospels we have today. The Gospel writers highlighted it because it clearly shows that the ancient promise to Israel has come true in the person of Christ. But, I think, there is also another reason this story resonated with them, and perhaps also resonates still with us. And that is that there is something intensely personal about it. As we heard, Jesus and the man go off by themselves away from the crowd, and Jesus puts his fingers in the man’s ears and touches his tongues, and says, Ephphatha, “Be opened.”

These details may sound strange to us. But they also show unmistakably that the healing which the man experienced isn’t random, or out of the blue, or detached and impersonal. It happens as a result of the man physically encountering Jesus; it is the person of Jesus himself who transforms this man, who “opens” him and brings him into a new way of relating with the world around him. Jesus doesn’t bring healing; he is Healing – his very Presence is what restores the man to wholeness.

This is, I think, the deeper reality that so resonated with the disciples and should resonate also with us. Few of us know what it must be like to be deaf, to have a speech impediment, and then to be healed of those things. However, we are familiar with becoming at times deaf to the voice of God, incapable at various points of speaking his Word by the manner of our lives. As wonderful as the miracle in today’s Gospel was, it is the healing of spiritual impediments that is truly transformative, that opens us to a whole new way of being. Whenever we find ourselves isolated because of fear or anxiety, closed off to God or to others because of our sinfulness, oblivious to the presence of grace in and around us – it is precisely then that Jesus desires to reach out and touch us so that we can “be opened” again. Sometimes, he does so in the encounter with his living Word in the Scriptures, or in an encounter with his presence inside someone we interact with in our daily lives. Most often, the Lord’s healing touch comes through the intimate, sacramental encounters of Reconciliation and Holy Communion, when he breaks through our isolation and opens us again to newness of life.

Friends, the Gospel stories that we hear each Sunday, that we meditate upon again and again, should resonate with us because they can be insights into the story of our own relationship with Christ. In Jesus, we have experienced, and can experience again, the transformative power of the God who has shared our reality and wants to give us a share in his. He wishes to take away our spiritual deafness and empower us to proclaim the love of God to others – but we have to meet him halfway, with hearts that truly believe in his power to heal.

Let’s pray today that the Lord will grant each of us a deeper faith – the kind of faith shown by the deaf man, the kind of faith shown by those who brought him to Jesus, the kind of faith awakened in the hearts of those who saw that miracle, the kind of faith that resonated with those who recorded this story and passed it down to us through the centuries. Whatever our fears, or struggles, or weaknesses – with faith, we can sense the Lord’s presence this very day, this very Mass, reaching out to heal us and make us whole. “Be strong, fear not. Here is your God.”

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Pedaling Uphill

When was the last time you rode a bike? Recently, I got back on my bike for the first time in a long while. Doing so, I remembered a few things. First, how to ride it – thank God. Second, how much I enjoy it. I find riding a bike to be a great experience of freedom – moving under your own power, at just the right speed to take in your surroundings but also to get quickly where you want to go.

I also quickly remembered that riding a bike can also be pretty challenging. When you’re on level ground, the work of propelling yourself can be very relaxing; when you’re going downhill, it’s even exhilarating, since you don’t have to do any work at all! But when the road changes, and the path ahead becomes narrow and steep, what had been fun and refreshing suddenly becomes hard work. Pedaling uphill requires firm resolve – it requires putting in the sweat and effort needed to keep going forward.

I was reminded of this this past week as I reflected upon the Gospel for this Sunday. If you’re like me, you might approach your relationship with God as a kind of spiritual bike ride. Amid the volatilities of the world around us, the ups and downs of our relationships with others, we tend to want to receive from God only things that refresh and invigorate us. We want the spiritual rush that comes from a great moment of prayer, or an uplifting Mass, or an encouraging affirmation of our vocation. Like a biker coasting downhill, we tend to think, “This is great! Full speed ahead!”

Inevitably, though, we hit a bump in the road. I have spent much of the last week meeting and communicating with people who find themselves struggling in some way with their faith right now. Some of them are outraged and frustrated by the reports of the clergy abuse scandals, and the response to them from our Church leaders – a response that many feel is insufficient so far. Other people are confronting other crises: family health emergencies, a lack of clarity about plans for the future, even a general sense of God being distant or absent from their lives. It seems that many of us are struggling at the moment, for one reason or another.

Giovanni Lanfranco, Miracle of the Bread and Fish (c. 1620)

The Gospel today is all about spiritual struggle, and how to respond to it. This reading is the conclusion of the Bread of Life discourse, and I find it to be one of the sadder parts of the Gospel of John. Jesus has laid out clearly that it is God’s will that he become our spiritual nourishment, not in a symbolic sense but by actually consuming his Flesh and Blood as the pledge of eternal life. Sadly, as we hear, these words are just too shocking for many of his listeners. They are left confused and bewildered, and they find that they can’t accept his words. As we heard, they stop following him, and “returned to their former way of life.” How sad those words sound, even to us today.

Some of Jesus’s followers remain. However, they don’t stay because they totally understand Jesus. They too are shocked and confused. But instead they make the decision to stay because they can’t turn away – they have placed their faith in the Lord. They have decided that life with Christ is better than life without him. As Peter says, “We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God. You have the words of eternal life.”

For Peter and the other disciples, this moment in the Gospel marks a change in their relationship to Jesus. Like others, they had been fascinated by his compelling words, attracted to the miracles he worked and the authority that he claimed. It was a thrilling ride – they were coasting on the spiritual bike ride of discipleship, full speed ahead! But they hadn’t learned the other part of discipleship – that Jesus came not to be loved and respected by all, but ultimately to be rejected and put to death. This moment – when many of Jesus’s disciples walk away from him – is a foreshadowing of the near total abandonment that happens at the foot of the Cross, when eleven of the twelve Apostles including Peter flee out of fear.

The Letter to the Hebrews has a great definition for the virtue of faith. Faith, it says, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not yet seen.” It is the belief in something – really, Someone – even when we can’t clearly see the precise way ahead. Faith is not completely blind; but it is a virtue of believing in what is just beyond the edge of visible sight. For the Apostles, and for us, our faith is rooted in Jesus, he whose words are “spirit and life”. But our faith will also be tested. Maybe it is a difficult teaching of the Church, maybe it is a personal crisis, maybe it is the scandals in the headlines – whatever it is, something will inevitably will stop us in our tracks and force us to ask ourselves whether we really are convinced in what we believe.

Don’t let that bump in the road scare you! It’s a step in the path to a more mature faith, to a truer and deeper relationship with Christ. Every disciple must learn to say, as Peter says, “we have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” Discipleship is proven not when we are gliding along an easy path, but rather when our road becomes rocky, narrow, uphill. It’s then that we are faced with a choice: will I follow Jesus only when it is easy? Will I keep pedaling when the road gets hard? The truth is all of us turn away, at times – it’s what we call sin. But the key to discipleship is to listen to the Lord’s voice inviting us to turn back to him, to receive his grace and strength anew so we can continue to follow where he leads.

About seven years ago, our former pope, Pope Benedict said this in an address to young people: “Dear friends, may no adversity paralyze you. Be afraid neither of the world, nor of the future, nor of your weakness. The Lord has allowed you to live in this moment of history so that, by your faith, his name will continue to resound throughout the world.” I think those are good words to keep in mind in these days. Whether it is the scandals of the Church, or some difficulty in our own faith lives, we may find that our spiritual path is a bit challenging at the moment. What we need is a deeper faith – a renewed conviction in our personal decision to follow the Lord wherever he may lead.

Friends, the spiritual path may incline upwards at times. But it was never steeper than on the Hill of Calvary, when it seemed that all was lost. But even that was an invitation to a deeper faith, the ultimate revelation of God’s love for his people. Surely, the One who has conquered death can give us the strength to face the challenges of our present moment if we continue placing our faith in him. May the Eucharist that we give us strength for the journey in front of us, helping us to keep pedaling, uphill at times but always moving forward, toward “that place where true gladness is found.”

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Hard Lessons

For some, it comes with grins; for others, groans. No doubt, for everyone, a determined gritting of teeth. A new school year is upon us!

All of us here at St. Thomas Aquinas are very excited to welcome our students, faculty, and staff, both those returning and also all of those who are new to our community. A new year always affords new opportunities and new horizons, and especially here at the University of Arkansas, the ability to learn and encounter new things. New courses, new majors, new dissertations – all of them speak to the very reason why a student comes to college: to learn what is true, what is good, what is beautiful, and then to use that knowledge to better themselves and the world around us.

Of course, all of that assumes there is actually the possibility of learning, that one is actually open to being taught. Even the best of teachers cannot be effective if the student refuses to learn, if a person is closed off completely from having their viewpoint changed. In the Gospel today, Jesus encounters this problem in a direct way. As we have heard the last several weeks, Jesus has been patiently explaining that he is the Bread of Life, given from heaven for the life of the world. Today though we hear that some are skeptical – they question how exactly it can be possible for a man to give his body and blood as food for others. Jesus today becomes even more insistent – his Flesh is “true food” and his Blood “true drink” and that in order to have eternal life, one must eat that Flesh and drink that Blood. As we will hear next week, this is too much; many who had followed him walked away. They were not interested in this bit of learning; they had closed their hearts to what the Lord wanted to teach.

And so it is often for the most important things in our world. Most of us are willing to be challenged in small ways, to learn some new things as long as they are not too difficult. But truths which are truly transformational often require us to change our worldview completely. Even harder, they may force us to change ourselves. Those bits of learning are the most important kind, and yet they are also the ones most difficult to accept.

Golgotha [detail] by Nikolai Ge, 1893.

I mention all of this because I think our Church is very much at one of those moments. Like many of you, I have been distressed beyond words at the reports that came out this week, and indeed in recent weeks, about the scandals in our Church. As disgusted as I feel, I also believe we have been confronted with a hard truth, one that is difficult to accept because it requires us to change our worldview and our behavior. And yet, its importance cannot be turned away from – it is truly crucial that we learn from what we are experiencing. Bishop Taylor has asked us priests to read this statement to you:

[You can read Bishop Anthony Taylor's statement on the Pennsylvania grand jury results here.]

I want to share a few thoughts about what we can do in light of this scandal, but before I do so, I want to say two very important things.

Number 1: the true victims of this tragedy are not priests, or bishops, or even those of us who feel outraged and discouraged. The victims, or rather the survivors, are those who had their innocence, their dignity, and in many cases their faith stolen from them by men who should have protected them. They deserve to be affirmed and aided in whatever way the Church can, and that includes at the official levels as well as from you and me. If you or someone you know has been hurt by someone in the Church, please report it. You’ll find the numbers for the state hotline, as well as for the diocesan victims assistant coordinator, in our vestibule. 

Number 2: remember that the Lord is teaching us something here. Please don’t misunderstand me! In no way did God cause this scandal; he is as outraged as you and me. Nonetheless, I firmly believe that God will use this catastrophe as a difficult teaching moment, if you will – one that will rouse us from the drowsiness and dysfunction that has crept into our Church. This cancer of abuse and coverup is a foreign object, an invading presence in the Body of Christ, and as with any wound, what is needed is purification – something that will be painful but necessary in order to allow for true healing.

With those important things said – what do we do in response? First, allow yourself to feel whatever you are feeling right now. Some of you are furious, as I am. Others of you are disheartened and overwhelmed, and I sympathize with that as well. Whatever you feel is okay – but don’t let it rob you of your faith. The easy thing now to do would be to turn away, like the crowds who could not accept Jesus’s teaching. Instead, we must accept what the Lord wishes to teach us, hard as it may be. I think the Lord wants to form us into a purer, holier Church. This scandal is a reminder to all of us who are priests that we can never be satisfied with anything less than radical holiness in ourselves. The Lord Jesus demands nothing less from us, and you deserve nothing less. But if this scandal teaches us anything it is that it not just the clergy whom the Church needs now, but good and holy lay people as well – we need you to help build the Church to be all that God wants it to be. This has to start within before it can move without.

Second, consider what acts of self-sacrifice or penance you might be able to offer in reparation for the sins of the Church. Am I asking us to embrace penitence, even suffering, for sins we didn’t actually commit? Yep. That may seem unfair, and it is. But it is also deeply Christian, because it is what Jesus himself did on the Cross. Small sacrifices – such as going without your morning coffee, or giving up meat for a day, or refraining from social media for the evening – each of these and more can be a small way of saying, “Lord, have mercy on your People, on your Church, of whom I am a part.” They can also allow us to orient our hearts and minds toward prayer, which is action as well – the spiritual action of asking the Lord to act. If there’s nothing else we can do at this time, we can all lift up a prayer asking for the Lord to renew his Church.

Third, keep your eyes on Jesus. Individual priests and bishops may fall, but the Lord never betrays us. It is not going to be easy to be Catholic for a while, and you may well face insult or rejection for your faith from others. If that happens, remember that every suffering, especially an unjust one, is an opportunity to be joined to the Cross of Jesus, the most difficult teaching moment of all time. The Lord will not abandon us in this hour of trial. Rather, he’s feeding us with his own Flesh and Blood to give us the spiritual strength we need to renew the Church in this age.

Friends, welcome back! School is back in session here at the University – and so too in our Church we are learning hard lessons at the moment. As challenging as it is, we can't turn away from the difficult thing which the Lord wants so earnestly to teach us. It was the failure of some of our leaders to learn that lesson that has led to where we are today: to lives that have been damaged and a Church that is weakened. To begin to heal, we need more justice, more transparency, more accountability – but we also need more prayer, more poverty, more humility, more conversion. The lesson of this catastrophe is not just that we must demand change, but that we must change ourselves, so that we can more fully and more faithfully be the People of God in the world. 

May this Eucharistic banquet, in which our Lord becomes “true Food and true Drink,” nourish us in this time of trial and open our hearts to all that he wishes to teach us.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Spiritually "Hangry"

Human beings have physical limitations. For example, we know that each of us needs about eight hours of sleep each night to refresh and restore us. We need at least two liters of water for the same reason. When our limits are reached, we have to be replenished or else we wear down pretty quickly.

We know this to be true perhaps especially in regard to hunger. Do you know the meaning of the word “hangry”? If you spend some time around little kids, you will learn its meaning very quickly. Because they are smaller, children have less ability to cope with hunger than adults do. As a result, when they get hungry, they often get upset; they are “hangry” – hungry, and angry about it. This doesn’t happen only with children though – any person who reaches their physical limits, and needs sustenance, may find that their hunger leads to being exasperated, irritable, and worn down.

The “hangry” theme – that is, hunger leading to aggravation – is central to our readings today. In the first reading, the prophet Elijah is being hounded by the queen Jezebel. He is tired and worn down from the pursuit, so much so that he is ready to give up and die. An angel appears to him and recognizes that at the root of his despondency is hunger. And thus, he provides food miraculously, and Elijah is encouraged to “take and eat” so that he will have strength for the journey that lies ahead. In the Gospel of John, we hear the continuation of the Bread of Life discourse that we have heard the last few Sundays. Some people in the crowd are grumbling, wondering how exactly Jesus can say that he is the “bread that came down from heaven.” The Lord recognizes that their “murmuring” is the result of hunger. They are grumbling because they are not listening with ears of faith; as we heard last week, they just want another free meal, as when Jesus fed the multitude by multiplying the loaves. But he Lord wants to provide a deeper sustenance.

If physical hunger can lead us to becoming “hangry”, then no doubt spiritual hunger can do the same. In fact, whenever we find ourselves troubled, exasperated, or irritated in any way, it’s worth asking what is the cause of our anger – for what, so to speak, are we “hangry”? Often, I think we will find that at the root of our aggravation is the fact that we have reached some kind of limit. Perhaps we are in need of physical refreshment, but more often perhaps we are spiritually worn down, running low on those spiritual virtues – faith, hope, and love, especially – which sustain us and strengthen us for our journey.

Sometimes, anger is warranted. When we suffer injustice – when we recognize sin and disfunction among us, we rightly feel a sense of outrage and a zeal for justice. Perhaps like many of you, I have felt quite a bit of this kind of anger in recent weeks, as I have followed the reports of new Church scandals in our country and around the world. At the root of this anger is disappointment, exasperation, scandal – but also a kind of hunger, a deep desire for truth and transparency and integrity.

I will probably say more about these scandals in coming weeks, not least because they are not disappearing from the headlines any time soon. But as much as I find myself “hangry” at the moment – hungry for reform and renewal, angry at the abuses and betrayal – I found the words of today’s second reading very helpful. St. Paul encourages the Ephesian community to not give in to “bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling… all malice” for these are not of the Holy Spirit. I don’t think he means here the kind of righteous anger that is a response to injustice; Paul himself got angry at times with his different communities because of the hardness of their hearts. What he does mean is that we should always be on guard against pettiness, resentment, and meanness. Even when we find ourselves righteously angry – that is, when we hunger for justice and truth – we should be careful to not let those emotions turn into despondency and malice. Anger must never lead to hardened bitterness, empty fury, spite, despair. Those emotions are a sign that our righteous indignation has probably turned into something unrighteous, for like the Ephesians, we have failed to remember the presence of the Holy Spirit active among us. 

Luca Signorelli, Communion of the Apostles (1512)

Despite our best efforts, all of us though will at times find ourselves weighed down by just those feelings. When we do, the Eucharist is a great remedy. The temptation to becoming “hangry,” by whatever has led us to spiritual limits, is a sign that our hunger needs the true sustenance that is the presence of the Lord Jesus. Did you notice the reason why St. Paul encouraged the Ephesians to be forgiving and merciful? “Because God has forgiven you in Christ”, he says. Each time we receive the Eucharist, we are reminded that we have received, and continue to receive, mercy and forgiveness freely from the Lord – not because we have earned it in any way, but because it is God’s gracious gift. That gift of mercy is the fruit of the Cross of Christ, and when we receive the Eucharist, we receive into our very bodies the redeeming presence of Jesus’s self-offering to the Father on behalf of us. That is no small thing. Every time we come to the altar to receive this Blessed Sacrament, we should search our own hearts to see if that kind of radical mercy, radical humility is also present within us.

Friends, take a moment today to think about what might be making you “hangry” – not physically but spiritually. Maybe like me you are frustrated by the problems within the Body of Christ; maybe it is something else entirely. Whatever it is, Jesus said, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” We believe he is true to his word, and so we await the day that satisfaction comes. Until then, we must be attentive to not becoming worn down beyond our limits, letting our faith and charity be depleted that we are overcome by exhaustion and exasperation. If you find yourself at your spiritual limits, pray for a deeper awareness of the Lord’s sustaining love, and then receive what the Lord wants to give you at this Mass – “take and eat” that nourishment our heavenly Father provides to us his children, when the Lord himself satisfies the hunger of hearts. May this Eucharist today heal of us all that might tempt us to unrighteous anger and malice, give us the strength to work for justice, and remind us always to seek to forgive as he has forgiven us.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Expect the Expected

We all know the phrase, “Expect the unexpected.” It is used to describe a person or a situation that is less than predictable, perhaps in an exciting way, perhaps in a troublesome one. The phrase was not used in Jesus’s time, at least as far as I know, but no doubt his Apostles and others who encountered him would have well understood its meaning. Jesus was always confounding expectations, breaking social norms, and generally bewildering others, especially those in authority. No doubt the Apostles learned that when you’re following Jesus, you have to learn to “expect the unexpected.” 

Our Gospel today presents us with two good examples of just what I mean. Jesus twice acts in a way contrary to how we might expect, not just to be surprising for its own sake, but because he was aware of a deeper need, a more urgent call of the Holy Spirit. Looking at these two instances of the unexpected, I think we can learn something valuable for our own walk with the Lord.

Last week, we heard about how Jesus sent out the Twelve Apostles ahead of him to towns and villages, endowed with his power and authority. In today’s Gospel they have returned from their missionary work. They have preached and healed and cast out demons, and they are excited to tell the Lord all that they have done ministering in his name. We might expect Jesus would say, “Great, now go on back out there, and do even more!” But instead, he invites them to come away and rest. No doubt he appreciated their exuberance for what they had done, but perhaps he understood a potential danger as well, maybe a temptation to pride, or a danger of being exhausted. Whatever it was, Jesus unexpectedly invites them to take a break.

This should have obvious implications for us. There is an inherent value in rest, in slowing down, in pausing from the routine. Doing so allows us to recover our strength. But it also helps us to be attentive to deeper and more spiritual things. Our culture has tended to create a virtue out of busyness for busyness’s sake, often at the expense of or in avoidance of what is truly meaningful and lasting. Jesus surely appreciated the work that the Apostles had done – their preaching, their healing, their casting out demons. But he also wanted to remind them that none of it had been done by their own powers. When we become too wrapped up in our efforts and labors – even in good things, even in things that explicitly are part of our Christian calling – we risk losing connection with the One who is behind it all. Thus, at times, we need to step back and step away: to rest, to reflect, to pray – to be reminded that in all things it is God who sustains us and it is only in our relationship with him that we remain effective in what we do.

Jan Brueghel the Elder, Sermon on the Sea of Galilee (c. 1600)

If the Gospel had stopped there, that would have been a great message to take away: the importance of renewal and rejuvenation. But as we heard, there is a second, surprising part to the story. As Jesus and the Apostles head off to a deserted place for a time of reflection, they are swarmed by people searching for them, coming out from all the towns and villages and turning up in vast numbers. There is an air of desperation about them; as we heard, they were “like sheep without a shepherd.” And Jesus, “moved with pity”, begins to minister to them again, and the Apostles along with him. As important as that period of rest and reflection was to have been, it now goes out the window in order to respond to a more dire need.

This is another important, if harder lesson about Christian discipleship: we need rest and reflection for ourselves, but we will not always get it right away or in just the way we would like. At times, the Lord may even ask us to give up or to delay this kind of rest – good as it is in itself – for a deeper commitment of service to those in need. Here the Lord shows us that what really renews us is not just relaxation but a refreshment in who we are, and in what our Christian calling entails. Some things cannot wait or be delayed: a parent has to set aside their own fatigue in order to care for a sick child; a family may have to pull together time or money to support a troubled teenager or an elderly parent; a pastor may have to respond that midnight emergency call after a long day of ministry. In these situations, and many others that we might think about, the Lord invites us to be like him, and like his Apostles – deserving of their own rest, their hearts go out to those in even greater need, and so they respond to what the Holy Spirit inspires them to do in the moment.

A brief word of caution here: this kind of deeper sacrifice of service cannot be sustained forever. The Lord does not call us to go beyond our own needs to the point of utter exhaustion. We have to be aware of our limits, and so rightly step away or ask for help without fear of shame when we need it. But we should also understand that sometimes there is a deeper refreshment, a deeper sustenance that comes from finding the face of the Lord in places we might not first readily expect. I have known families who have given up their vacation so that they can work in service to the poor; I have known priests who spend their well-earned rest giving retreats to sisters, etc. Those are noble things to do, and things that not all of us are necessarily called to; but what we are called to do, at times, is to set aside our own needs, important as they are, in order to attend to those truly in need.

What we need is a good discernment of who we are and where we are at with the Lord. We should never become so caught up in the tasks at hand that we abandon prayer altogether, because prayer is the instrument by which we can hear God speaking to us. Has our well run dry, have we run aground spiritually? Are we in need of some quiet reflection? Okay, good; seek that out. But if the Lord comes knocking, and a greater need presents itself, we should be open to considering that Jesus may also be present there, that he may be asking us to put aside our rest for a time – as good and well-earned as it may be – so that we can encounter him in service to those in even greater need.

Friends, take a moment this week to ask where Jesus is leading you at this time. Perhaps like the Apostles, you need some time away for rest and spiritual renewal. Great! Seek that out. Perhaps he is asking you to continue laboring for a bit longer, to attend to those who are in your care or awaiting your help, setting aside your own needs for a time. Okay – trust that he will strengthen you to do just that, and then be joyful in serving him there. Following the Lord is ultimately not just about “expecting the unexpected,” but rather about expecting the expected – that is, an encounter with Jesus, often in unexpected places. May the Eucharistic presence that we will soon receive help us to hear his voice speaking to us, and give us the grace to respond readily to all that he may ask.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Go Forth

James Tissot, He Sent Them Out Two by Two (c. 1886)

Ordinary people often do heroic things. We see examples in the news all the time. A person puts themselves in harm’s way to save a person in need. Inevitably, you’ll hear them say afterward, “I’m not a hero; I just did what anybody would do.”

We often think of bravery as a quality by those who react instinctively – running into oncoming traffic or into a burning building. But bravery is really just doing what you know must be done, despite the potential costs to yourself. The truly brave then are not those who risk life or limb without thinking – but rather, those who do know the possible danger full well and who face it anyway, despite their fears.

In the Gospel today, Jesus sends out the Apostles on a mission that requires true bravery. Having spent time seeing him preach, watching him heal, they will now go out ahead of him and on his behalf to the nearby towns and villages. Because we know that the Apostles did a lot of preaching and evangelizing in their later lives, we might forget that this is the first time they are going out on their own. No doubt they were nervous and felt unprepared, and probably all of the things that might go wrong went racing through their minds. After all they were just poor fishermen, most of them, unskilled, not even completely sure themselves what following Jesus was all about, and now they were being sent out into strange, maybe hostile communities with a message of repentance.

And yet, they went. They showed bravery in the face of their mission, despite the dangers that lay ahead. Perhaps you have anticipated what I am leading to – Jesus wants to send us out on mission in a similar way. Don’t we tend to think of our faith as something that we have chosen? As an affiliation or belief system that we subscribe to out of free choice? But a fundamental reality of Christianity is that before we chose the Lord, he has chosen us – he has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as St. Paul says, and so he calls us to use that blessing in our encounter with others. If Christian discipleship is about trying to follow Jesus more perfectly each day, it is also about trying to answer each day his call of being sent by him into the world. There’s no generic or boilerplate calling – God sends each of us uniquely, according to our vocation, in our circumstances right now, to bring the Good News of Jesus to others.

I think we can draw from our Gospel today three brief insights that might help us to answer that call well:

1) First, notice that the Apostles don’t offer excuses. They know they don’t have it all figured out yet; they know they’re still missing many things, still needing God’s grace to be healed of their own imperfections. But they trust in what Jesus has told them – to rely upon him, and not on what they possess, physically or spiritually. In our lives, we don’t have to be theological experts or moral gurus in order to speak about the Lord to another. We only have to be ready to communicate to another why life with Christ is better than life without him, and believe that he will give us the words to speak what he wishes us to say.

2) Second, notice that Jesus sent the Apostles out two by two. The Lord gives us his inner strength in our mission, but he also knows we need support from each other. It’s critical then that we look for spiritual friends who will help support us and keep us accountable in answering our call. Think about who might meet this need for you, and for whom you meet this need. None of us are called to evangelize on our own; we need to strengthen and support each other in our common task.

3) Third, notice that Jesus tells the Apostles not to be troubled by rejection. Going out to proclaim the Gospel, we will encounter hardship and resistance; that’s just the nature of the calling. But when it happens, we should not give it undue thought, allowing it to breed doubt or discouragement within us. Instead, as Jesus says, look ahead to the next place, the next person, because there is always another opportunity on the horizon. Trust in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and carry on.

Friends, at the end of every Mass, the priest or deacon gives us a simple command: in Latin, “Ite” – “Go” – that is, “Go forth”, “Go in peace,” “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.” It is a reminder that this command is not really from the priest or deacon, but from the Lord Jesus. He commands us to go out – to our homes, our workplaces, our classrooms, any and every social setting – to proclaim his Good News to those who might hear it. The Lord sends us out, like he sent the Apostles, to bring his message of faith, hope, and love to those who need it. Let’s be brave in answering his call, let’s support each other, and let’s not be discouraged if we encounter rejection. We surely know well the costs and dangers that can come from living our Catholic faith authentically in this day and age. But we also know it is the Lord who sends us, and he will not fail to provide us all that we need if we show bravery in responding to what he commands, to what must be done in his name. Relying upon him, he can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, the weak into the brave, the disciple into the Apostle. Let us go forth!

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Hidden Thorns

If you're a fan of baseball, as I am, you may be familiar with the term "home cooking". It's not used so much anymore, but back in the day, it was used to refer to the generous or forgiving approach to the game that a player or team might receive in their home stadium. For example, a pitcher for the home team might get a few extra inches on the edge of the strike zone than a pitcher from the away team. Or, if a batter for the home team hits a ball that should have been caught, he might be granted a hit from the official scorer even if in another city the ball would have been ruled an error. There's no conscious bias or discrimination happening – that's just "home cooking".

Most of us expect to get a little easier treatment when we're at home, among family and friends, in settings that are familiar and comfortable. No doubt, Jesus may have looked forward to something very similar when he returns to his hometown in the Gospel today. But as we hear, what he finds is anything but "home cooking". He's met instead with skepticism, perplexity, and above all, a lack of faith. The Gospel writer Mark tells us that he was "not able to perform any mighty deed there." It's not that he lacked the power or no longer had the ability to work a miracle – rather, the faith that warranted and elicited the mighty deeds he had done elsewhere was wholly lacking in his hometown, among his own family and friends. How truly sad that must have been for the Lord.

While we tend to expect things at home to go easier for us than in more unfamiliar, less welcoming places, the reality of course is often much different. For many people, "home" is often a place of great challenge and the setting of much suffering. Home can be the place of domestic troubles, marital strife, illness, isolation, addiction, even despair. Home can be the place where people who may seem perfectly fine and happy to the outside world have to face their crippling fears, their sorrowful memories, their inner demons, or their broken relationships. The place that should be a place of rest, welcome, and peace can become for many a place of true pain.

The Apostle Paul (c. 1657) by Rembrandt van Rijn

In our second ready today, we hear Saint Paul confide to the Corinthian community about an experience of suffering that he has had. He seems to be sharing something that is not perceptible to everyone else, something private and personal. There has long been debate about what exactly he was suffering from. Some think it was a debilitating illness, like epilepsy, while others tend to think it was some broken personal relationship, or even a temptation of some kind. Whatever it was, we know it caused him great pain – he refers to it as "a thorn in the flesh" and even "an angel of Satan". Clearly, this was no small thing, but a source of great suffering.

Paul very understandably prays to the Lord, with whom he clearly has a very close relationship, asking for healing and for this suffering to be taken away. And he is told, "No." Jesus, the Divine Friend, the one who had changed Paul's life and was the driving force behind all of his missionary work, tells him that he wants him to continue to bear the pain that he has. How strange this is to our way of thinking! But Paul comes to understand the Lord's true desire – that the pain he felt would keep him from growing too proud, too "elated," and would remind him of the sufferings that must always be a part of our life on this side of heaven. The Lord could surely have taken away Paul's pain, changed his situation to undo the hurt and no doubt bewilderment that must have come, wondering why he was being asked to suffer. But as Paul explains to the Corinthians, he came to realize that he was stronger with his suffering than without it, because it forced him to rely upon the Lord's strength and not his own. Paul was humbled, and in his humility, he found a deeper faith, a renewed strength, a joy that comes not from the absence of pain but endurance despite it.

When we look at our own lives, especially those private and personal things, those aspects of our domestic world and home life that others may not see, perhaps known only to us, how do we face those challenges? As I said, there is no end to the number of hidden thorns that can afflict us in the very place, the very setting that we would most wish to take solace in. All of us likely have some aspect of our "home" life that not only could be better, but is in need of healing, that is a place of pain which we wish the Lord would touch and heal. We can and should ask for that healing, as Paul did. But if we are told "No" – that is, if the Lord says that his grace is sufficient for us, and that his power is made perfect in our weakness – then we must find the same faith that Paul found. Our natural response might be skepticism, perplexity, and perhaps even a lack of faith – a belief that God has rejected us, has not heard our prayer, or doesn't wish to respond. But perhaps that is not it at all; perhaps the mighty deed God wants to work in us is not healing but something greater, something that doesn't take away our pain but allows us to overcome it, to move beyond it. It is then that, unlike the people of Jesus's hometown, our faith in what God can do must not be found lacking. How powerful it can be if we understand, like Paul, that God has heard our prayer and responds instead, "Yes, you are suffering, but your suffering is making your stronger, holier, more perfect". The thorn in our flesh may be the very part of our life that is drawing us closer to God, making us more Christ-like, perhaps even paving our own personal path to heaven.

Friends, none of us expect to get "home cooking" all of the time. All of us know there are times when the calls will seem to go against us, and things won't go our way. But perhaps we do at times tend to believe that if we are good people, if we believe in Jesus, that will we be saved from the worst parts of life, that God will prevent us from encountering anything truly terrible, truly painful. We must learn that that is not what the Lord grants to us. Like Paul, we must come to understand, "when I am weak, then I am strong." Don't shy away from the sufferings you are asked to bear, the hidden wounds that only you know, the situations that you wish to be fixed but are not. Instead, let your hidden thorns become signs of your faith – marks in your "flesh," as it were, that mimic the marks of Christ, that make you more like him, even as you struggle on. There are few things in this world that are as profoundly hopeful and inspiring as a person who bears nobly a great suffering, a humiliating pain, especially when they do so out of their faith in Jesus. Whether known to others, or even if known only to ourselves, it may be that exactly at that point, exactly in that place, the Lord is doing something amazing within us – offering us, if not healing now, the strength and grace and perseverance to bear our sufferings with faith and hope, furthering us on the road to the Kingdom where pain and sadness have no place, where every tear has been wiped away.