Sunday, October 25, 2015

Opening the Eyes of Faith

William Blake, Christ Giving Sight to Bartimaeus (c. 1800)

A few months ago, I was visiting with a friend of mine who had recently gone through a personal tragedy. In a clumsy attempt to be comforting, I said something like, “I know this must be so hard for you.” My friend – knowing that I had not experienced anything like her misfortune in my own life – looked at me kindly and said, “No, you don’t know, not really.”

Have you ever had something similar happen to you? It’s a fundamental problem of the human condition – that ultimately each of us live this life only in our own skin. As much as we might like to imagine that we understand and relate to each other, there is always a certain level of experience of another that we don’t know.

The blind man in the Gospel today is a good example. We don’t know what it’s like to be blind from birth – and we certainly don’t know what it’s like to suffer the implications of being blind in ancient times, of being forced to become a beggar, sitting by the roadside. The blindness that he suffered from was a physical condition – but as with so many things in the Bible, it’s also symbolic. He’s not just unable to see with his eyes – he’s blind in a spiritual sense. He’s lost, alone, on the fringes of society, ignored by others, even invisible to them.

But the blind man is not a nobody; he has a name – as we hear, Bartimaeus. If you think about it, it’s sort of amazing that his name has been passed down to us through the centuries. Jesus cured many people in his ministry, and he met many more, but Bartimaeus is one of the few names that is recorded by the Evangelists and passed down to us. Why him? Well, maybe because despite his handicapped condition, physical and spiritual, Bartimaeus was not helpless. He cried out to someone, someone who was passing by, someone whom he believed had the power to save him.

Unlike the crowd, unlike even the disciples, Jesus takes notice of Bartimaeus. He calls him, and he asks him a simple question, “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus knows of course that the man is blind – but he asks him nonetheless. He wants him to recognize his problem, to admit how he needs help. And with what must have been great emotion, Bartimaeus responds, “I want to see.”

You know, we’re not that different from Bartimaeus. We may not be blind physically, but when we’re overburdened, overworked, distracted by the allurements of what always fails to satisfy – we become lost, confused, isolated. Whether it’s the effects of a troubled relationship, or a personal struggle against sin, or a questioning about where God is in our lives – all of us at some point experience a kind of desperation that only we truly know the depths of.

What should we do when that happens? Should we close in ourselves – because others can’t really understand what we’re going through, do we shut them out? Or do we deny that there’s anything wrong, and just try to blindly continue on our lost way? Far better that we should be like Bartimaeus, and turn to the one who can help us see again. This isn't easy – it means admitting that we need help, recognizing our problem and facing it. But when we turn to Jesus, we don’t do these things alone.

We can turn to Jesus at any time – at the beginning of our day, mindful of what we have to do; at the end of our day, reflecting on where God has been present to us; or any time that we’re struggling or tempted or depressed or lost or just can’t even. Maybe the most important way that we turn to him though is doing this – being present at Mass each and every Sunday.

Even as a priest, I know sometimes that Mass seems very routine – we sing the same songs, say the same prayers, even stand and sit and kneel at the same time. But think about it in a different way. We come together, all of us burdened by our individual problems and concerns and issues. But together, we also recognize, like Bartimaeus, that we’re not perfect – and calling out to Jesus, we are called by him. We renew our faith in him, and then he changes us – he makes us better, he helps us see again with eyes of faith, he restores us by feeding us with his very Self. And then, changed, bettered, restored, we go forth, just as Jesus sent Bartimaeus forth – no longer isolated or alone but as confident disciples who follow Jesus on the way.

My friends, as I learned from my friend, it’s a reality of our human condition that we can’t always understand the experience that others are going through, just as they can’t understand ours. But God does understand – and in Jesus he wants to heal us of our dysfunction, order our chaos, and break through our isolation. “What do you want me to do for you?,” Jesus says to each of us today. How would you respond to that? Let’s turn away from blindness and helplessness; let’s humbly name what our problem is before God and confidently claim the answer that being in relationship with Jesus provides. And then, like Bartimaeus, let’s get up, let’s go forth, and joyfully follow in the way that he leads us.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Wishes & Wisdom

Heinrich Hofmann, Christ and the Rich Young Ruler (1889)

If you could have any wish in the world granted, what would it be? Would you go for the obvious – like a million bucks or a trip around the world – or would you be more shrewd in what you wished for? I remember an old joke: a man rubs a lamp and a genie comes out. The genie says, “You have one wish – but choose carefully.” The man thinks and says, “I want all the women of the world to find me irresistible.” The genie shakes his head, and turns the man into a bar of chocolate.

In the first reading, we hear about a man much wiser than that amorous fellow. The Book of Wisdom is traditionally attributed to have been written by Solomon, the third king of Israel and the son of David. God was pleased with Solomon for completing the first Temple in Jerusalem, and so he tells Solomon, “Ask for anything and I will give it to you.” Solomon had inherited a vast and powerful kingdom from his father, but he also knew that he was young and inexperienced. So instead of asking for riches, or security, or a long life, he asks instead for wisdom – what the Psalm for today calls “wisdom of the heart.” Solomon valued wisdom above all because he knew that wealth and power and beauty and fame all eventually fade, and unless we have learned wisdom, we ultimately have gained nothing.

The Bible speaks often of wisdom, especially in the Old Testament. Wisdom is more than knowledge or insight – it is a divine quality, the ability to see as God sees, to understand as God understands. For the Jewish people, divine wisdom existed before the world was created, and it was the means by which God created the world – the agent through which he revealed himself in his creation. The Jews often personified wisdom as a beautiful woman – as Solomon writes in the first reading, “I preferred her to scepter and throne, and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her.” To have wisdom was, in a sense, to have reached perfection – to be as close to God as any human could be.

In the Gospel, we hear the familiar story of the rich young man who also desires perfection. And he is very close – as he says, he has followed the basic principles of a good life, the Ten Commandments, since his youth. But he is spurred on by a desire for something more, and who does he turn to? He runs up to Jesus, he throws himself on his knees, and asks “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He recognizes that Jesus possesses something that he can’t find elsewhere. And Jesus looks at him with love, and then tells him to go and sell all he has, give it to the poor, and follow him.

How hard those words must have been to hear! The man, as we hear, goes away sad. There is no doubt that for any of us to follow Jesus means giving something up, to let go of something that we are clinging to instead of letting go in order to follow him freely. But exactly what that something is is different for each of us. Did you notice how the young man phrased his question to Jesus, “What more must I do to inherit eternal life?” He is a rich young man, but even the way he phrases this desire for perfection – an internal desire – has overtures of wealth and riches.

The rich young man is called to true holiness by giving away his riches. But it’s not the riches themselves that are the problem – it’s his attachment to them. Jesus calls each of us to give up exactly what holds us back from following him. For some of us that might be wealth – so we are called to give to the poor and the needy. For others of us, it is lust or impurity of heart – so we are called to control our passions and discipline our desires. For others of us, it might be anger (and so we practice patience) or pride (and so we strive for humility) or love of excess (and so we try to live simply) or sloth (and so we pray for vigor and fervor of spirit). I’m sure that each of us know, deep down, right now, what we are being asked to give up in order to follow Jesus more closely.

Perhaps though we might ask, “Well that’s hard! What exactly am I getting in return for giving all of this up?” That’s exactly what the disciples ask Jesus in the Gospel. A minute ago I said that for the ancient Jews, wisdom was often personified as Lady Wisdom – the handmaid of God by which he reveals himself. But for us as Christians, we go a step further – wisdom is not personified but a Person, Jesus. He is the revelation of God, the one in whom and through whom he has created all things. He is Wisdom Incarnate. To be his follower means to give something up, yes – but it also means to gain something far more valuable than gold or silver, than long life or good health. By following Jesus, we gain wisdom from the living Word of God himself.

You know, there’s another story in our Christian tradition about a man being offered anything he wanted. St. Thomas Aquinas, our patron saint, was a brilliant theologian. After he had finished his great treatise on the Eucharist, on what happens at every Mass in the transformation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, he took a moment to pray. While praying before a crucifix, he had a vision, and Jesus spoke to him, “You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward would you have?” Imagine the possibilities that would have attracted a man of Thomas’s intellect – to understand the secrets of the natural world and of history, to contemplate with clear vision the mysteries of the universe. But Thomas recognized the chance to have true wisdom – and so to this question “What reward would you have,” he responded, “Non nisi te, Domine” – “Nothing, but you, Lord.”

My friends, amid all of the cares and concerns of our daily lives, we should be like Solomon and understand that we really need is wisdom. Don’t strive for riches, or for power, or for fame, or for pleasure, or for happiness as the world knows it; don’t strive for a carefree existence, or for honor, or for knowledge. None of those things bring true happiness. Rather, seek true wisdom – let go of what you are grasping on to so that you can follow Jesus. Be like him – if you seek to possess, give away; if you seek to be happy, learn to embrace suffering; if you seek to be great, be humble and serve others. Jesus can give to each of us a perfection that surpasses every desire, but only if we focus ourselves on him alone.

So if you could be given any wish, what would it be? Make the way you live the answer: “Nothing, but you, Lord.”

Monday, October 5, 2015

God & The Order of Creation

Giotto, Francis Preaching to the Birds (c. 1298), Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi

Every year, on October 4th, the Church celebrates one of its most enduringly popular saints. He came from a prominent family, had a wealthy inheritance, and was a man of ingenuity at a time when society greatly helped those who helped themselves. But he gave up what he had – his political influence, his fortune, even literally the shirt off his back – in favor of helping others, to live a life of love and service.

Francis of Assisi remains one of the most beloved figures of our faith, a man who continues to inspire people of all faiths to this day, including our current Pope. People love and identify with St. Francis for a variety of reasons, but perhaps one of the most common is his love for the created world. Maybe you’ve heard the story of how Francis once preached to the birds about the glory of God or tamed a wolf that was terrorizing the inhabitants of a village. Francis felt closest to God in nature. He was the original outdoorsman, in a sense, because he found in creation a way of understanding life. He often preached and wrote about how everything in the world – ourselves, animals and plants, even the sun and the moon – exists in a relationship with everything else, in a communion that brings us together and puts in touch with God.

Today happens to be October 4th, and although we celebrate the Sunday of Ordinary Time instead of the liturgy for Francis’s feast day, I think we can still honor St. Francis in a way. It just so happens that our readings today speak about creation, about the natural world as God has created it and of which we are a part. If we try to understand these readings with the mindset of Francis – of understanding creation as a lens by which we understand God and ourselves – I think we will draw close to what Jesus is seeking to show us.

In the Gospel, the Pharisees are trying to trip up Jesus. They ask him about the lawfulness of divorce, a hot topic and a common problem in the society of that day much as it is in our own. Divorce had been permitted by Moses, as they know, but they also expect him to demand something more. And Jesus does not disappoint – but he also appeals to an authority higher than Moses – pointing out how God created humanity as male and female, equal but distinct, and made for one another. Rather than referring to just a particular Mosaic law, Jesus is showing that the design of human love is written into who we are, who we have been created to be, and God’s plans for marriage are as part of the natural order of creation as the physical world that we see around us.

Creation, as St. Francis and Jesus both understood it, is not empty of meaning. Rather the very way in which the world has been created is something God has revealed to us – especially about who we are. Just as Francis understood our lives as humans to be intricately connected with the rest of the created world, so too Jesus is asking us to understand marriage and human love as part of the divine plan, as part of the way in which God has created our very natures. Love and marriage have a high ideal, for Jesus and for us, because they are given to us by God – they’re not merely social constructs but a path to communion with others, a path to holiness through love.

As in Jesus’s day, the reality though is often very different than the ideal. And while we are called to give witness to the truth – to acknowledge how the way in which God has created us is of great consequence – we also are called to speak the truth in love. Today, in Rome, bishops and cardinals from around the world are gathering for a synod – a fancy word for a meeting – about challenges that currently face marriage and the family. There has been a lot of discussion – maybe you’ve heard some of it – about various proposals for ways in which the Church might be able to assist those who are struggling in some way with living out the truth about human sexuality, the marriage, and the family. I hope you’ll join me in praying earnestly for the guidance of the Holy Spirit over the next few weeks – that we as a Church, as a Christian community, might understand how God wants us to speak the truth about who we are, who he has created us to be, but to always do so in love, with charity and mercy.

My friends, at the end of today’s Gospel, after teaching a truth that was hard – for the disciples and for us – Jesus draws their attention to the humility and love of a little child. Our salvation ultimately is not about solving some social or political question, but rather it rests on whether we are willing to humbly accept the kingdom of God. With the innocence of a child, with the humility of St. Francis, may we be open to allowing ourselves to be awed by the beauty and the majesty of the nature that God has given to us – the nature that surrounds us and the nature within us – and may we find there a reason to respond to one another always with mercy, and truth, and love.