Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Sculpted by the Tools of God

Portrait of a Sculptor (c. 1625), Daniele Crespi

One of the great privileges of being able to travel or live abroad is the chance to see famous works of art firsthand. When I lived in Italy for four years during my seminary training, I had the chance to travel to see many of the greatest artistic masterpieces in history: Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Picasso’s Guernica, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.

Maybe the most amazing work that I saw in my time in Europe though was Michelangelo’s famous sculpture David in Florence. It’s famous not only for its flawless depiction of the male form but also because it was made from a single piece of marble twice rejected by other sculptors as inferior. Supposedly, when Michelangelo was asked how he fashioned such a tremendous sculpture, he stated that it wasn’t very hard; he simply chipped away all the marble that did not fit David’s form.

This Lent, I would say that God wishes to do something very similar with us. We recognize that the world is not as it should be, and the road to change must begin with us. Like flawed pieces of marble, we recognize our faults and our inferiorities, but we also know that – like Michelangelo – the divine artist nonetheless sees something of value within us, a master work ready to be unveiled. Lent offers us the chance to be better interiorly so that we can start to build a better world exteriorly.

In the Gospel we heard, Jesus instructs his disciples on how to pray, fast, and give alms in the right way. In telling them how to do these things, he makes a certain presumption – that we should do them. The secular mindset of today rejects these suggestions of self-improvement – it scorns the notion that we need to pray and fast and give to the poor. But you and I understand that we are not perfect; indeed, we are flawed and in need of further fashioning, and in this Lenten season, God chooses these tools by which to make us more as he wishes us to be.

In the hand of God, the penitential practices of Lent can have real effect. Think of prayer and fasting as a kind of hammer and chisel to our souls. They work together to detach us from things which are good (or at least not bad) in and of themselves – material things like food and drink, television, social media – so that we can strive to live more for the greatest good, which is God. In the Gospel, Jesus tells us that our prayer should be devout and not showy, not so much secretive as concentrated on God and not on being observed by others. Even more, these practices – especially fasting – should be joyful. We miss the entire point if we focus on what we’re giving up and how hard it is and not on the fact that we are creating more space in our lives for the very one for whom our hearts have been created.

If prayer and fasting are like hammer and chisel, then perhaps almsgiving is like a file or a rasp, which smooth out our rough edges to even greater perfection. Almsgiving – that is, the giving of money to the needy, whether to a church, to a friend in need, to a charitable organization which legitimately helps the poor – forces us to focus not on ourselves but on another. Prayer and fasting are good practices, but if we do them alone, we can still become too wrapped up in ourselves, perhaps even bordering on a self-focused pride about our own spiritual growth. Helping the poor and the needy forces us to come out of our own little worlds and find Christ in those who are less fortunate.

So what are some practical ways that we can allow the Lord to use these penitential tools in this season of Lent?

· For prayer, consider starting your day or ending your day (or both) with a brief prayer. In the morning, you can offer to God all the things that you’re going to experience that day, both good and bad, and say a Hail Mary so that Mary can help you to do that. In the evening, call to mind where God was present to you throughout that day, and where you responded to him and where you didn’t, and say an Act of Contrition for all of your sins.

· For fasting, consider giving something up beyond coffee or chocolate. What if you were to do something like go vegetarian for the whole of Lent? Or, for those who are of age, no booze? Maybe the thing that many of us most need to fast from is our constant to desire to have a screen in front of our face. Think about abstaining from social media two days a week, or giving up television until all of your other responsibilities for the day (including prayer time) are taken care of. I guarantee you will have a deeper sense of God’s presence in your life.

· For almsgiving, consider donating beyond the usual charity that you always fall back upon. If you’re a student, perhaps you can save the money on the pizza you might buy on Friday night and put it in the collection basket on Sunday morning? Or if you really want to make a difference to a worthy charity, take home a Catholic Relief Services Rice Bowl this Sunday, keep it during Lent, and bring it back before Easter. That money will go to support relief and humanitarian efforts being done by the US Catholic Church (being done in your name) in the poorest countries in the world.

You might take these suggestions, or you might have some ideas of your own. Remember that whatever you do, these penances of fasting, prayer, and giving alms are not ends in themselves – they are merely steps along the path of spiritual growth that God has for each of us.

David, detail (c. 1504), Michelangelo Buonarroti

Friends, this Lent, Jesus invites us to travel with him: not on a journey abroad – to encounter works of art made by others – but on a journey within – to encounter the work of art that he is forming us to be. He is the artist and we are the masterpiece. This season, let us open ourselves to the tools of his transformation, so that by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving Jesus might create each of us, more and more, to be his perfect image in the world.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Relying Upon a God Who Provides

Jan Luyken, Sermon on the Mount engraving (c. 1712), Philip Medhurst Collection

Philosophers have long debated how exactly humans are different from animals. Through the centuries they have arrived at numerous ways that we are different than the rest of creation, most of them related to the fact that we have eternal souls. This is expressed in many of our positive qualities: introspection, reason, love for the other. But there are also some ways we are different from animals that are more negative. One of the most common is the fact that we worry.

Outside of immediate physical danger, animals don’t worry about very much. Jesus points that out in the Gospel today when he draws his listeners’ attention to the birds of the air. They exist without any assurance of tomorrow, without any plans for living beyond the present moment; and yet, as Jesus says, God provides for them. Contrast that to us humans. We seemingly never stop planning and preparing, ordering and reordering our lives, and above all else worrying about how we are going to meet all that is demanded of us.

We do this because we know we have to. And yet as we heard, Jesus tells us: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear… Do not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will take care of itself.” That is a strange command, perhaps even unreasonable. Of course, we have to contextualize what Jesus is really saying. He is certainly not telling parents to not plan for the future of their children, or students to not prepare for tomorrow’s exam. Instead, he’s encouraging us to not let ourselves be so consumed by anxiety such that we forget what the birds of the air know: that God will provide.

There are certainly things in life that cause us anxiety. We need only watch the news, read the headlines, or think about whatever personal or family struggle we might have currently to remember that: a child diagnosed with cancer, a wife who has lost her husband, a friend who is suffering in a profound way. These things not only create anxiety – they hurt, we suffer because of them. In light of them, Jesus’s message of “Don’t worry, God will provide” can ring hollow. 

But remember who is speaking – Jesus speaks to us not just from his human nature, but from his divine one as well. That is, he is speaking to us as God, telling us that he will care for us. Even more, Jesus backs up his words with action. The Sermon on the Mount from which we’ve been hearing the last several weeks is the master plan for the kingdom of God, but it is the ministry of Jesus that ushers that kingdom in. In his encounters with people, Jesus brought to them the presence of God, giving them a tangible experience of how God does provide – with accompaniment, with healing, with mercy. On Calvary, Jesus proved the depth of God’s desire to provide for us in an eternal way, by taking upon himself the weight of our sin and death so that we can share in his abundant life. And Christ continues to encounter you and me, as well, assisting us each day with his own strength, especially through the sacraments.

The knowledge that God does indeed provide for us – that, as Isaiah says, he could no more forget us than a mother could forget her child – does not of course take away our problems. The things that cause us anxiety are still there, whether it’s that upcoming exam or the family strife or the personal struggle. But Jesus assures us, with word and action, that God walks with us in these challenges, aiding us with his strength and guiding us in his paths. We need only seek him first – seek his kingdom and its righteousness, in the words of Christ – then the heavenly Father provides the rest.

Friends, God has indeed made us different than the rest of creation in many ways – but the most important of them is our ability to come to know him, to have a relationship with our Creator, to trust in the one who has redeemed us in Christ, and the one who cares for us through the Spirit each day. On the Cross, Jesus showed us the depth of God’s desire to enter into even the most terrible part of our reality so that he might redeem it from within. As Christians, that redemption should allow us to be different than the rest of the world, allowing us to labor for today and leave tomorrow to God. Though challenges and anxieties remain, we have a foundation of hope underneath, believing that God has provided and will provide for our every need. He has promised that, and God is true to his promises.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Obeying God's Commands

If you’ve ever been in charge of kids for even a brief time – whether as a parent, a teacher, or a babysitter – you’ve probably heard yourself utter that familiar phrase, “Do it, because I said so!” Telling someone (whether a kid or an adult) to do something “because I said so,” is not honestly a very good justification, but nonetheless we resort to it from time to time. It would seem that sometimes we don’t know how exactly to put into words what we know to be correct – we only know how to demand it.

To be honest, there is a certain way of interpreting the readings for today as God telling humanity exactly that, “Do it, because I said so!” I imagine that’s not the first time or the last time we’ve felt that. Often we seem to receive God’s commands as having no other justification than that they come from him. For example, God tells Moses that he commands, “Do not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart;” “take no revenge and cherish no grudge against anyone;” “love your neighbor as yourself”. What is his reason? “I am the Lord your God.”

Jesus in the Gospel makes more demands: “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well; if anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand over your cloak as well; give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.” And perhaps most challenging?: “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” What is Jesus’s reason: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

All of these and more are difficult commands. They might even seem a little unreasonable, being that they are the opposite of what we often want to do naturally. Perhaps – looking at the commandments of God – we even feel like children being told by a divine parent, “Do it, because I said so!”, with little good reason other than that.

The reality though is very different. Think for a moment about when you’ve been in the position of a parent, a teacher, a babysitter who is faced with dealing with a difficult child. You know that there’s not really much use in trying to reason with a misbehaving kid. You can’t explain why their behavior is not ultimately in their best interest. All you can do is tell them, “Do it, because I said so.”

"Moses and the Ten Commandments," Lorenzo Ghiberti, East Doors of the Baptistery of St. John ("The Gates of Paradise"), Florence, c. 1440

The amazing thing, of course, is that (usually) that’s reason enough. The child seems to understand innately that we really do have their best interest at heart, and thus, “because I said so” is sufficient. Later he or she comes to understand that whatever we were telling them to do really was correct. They realize that things like “Go and clean your room,” “Brush your teeth,” and even more drastic things like, “Don’t play in the street,” and “Don’t touch the hot stove,” are not just our whims in the moment but really are for their own good. So too are the commands of God not just his arbitrary demands; they are always ordered to our highest good.

Friends, when we hear Jesus tell us to “Love your enemy” and “Turn the other cheek,” his words might seem impossible, even foolish. But remember that the wisdom of God is not the wisdom of this world. God never commands us to do something that he does not also give us the grace to fulfill. With our highest good at heart, God empowers us with his Holy Spirit to live as another Jesus in the world. As we approach the altar in this Mass, may we prepare our hearts to do as God commands, so that we might learn to love as he loves, and that we might be holy, perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Using Our Freedom Well

If there is one concept which our polarized society can agree upon, it’s the importance of freedom. Everyone wants to be free, and everyone agrees that being free is a good thing. Our country was founded on such a notion: that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are unalienable rights given to each of us by our Creator.

The problem, of course, is defining what freedom means in practice. Completely unchecked, freedom devolves into lawlessness; without any limits, one person’s free action may impinge upon on the rights of others, preventing them from being free. The founders of our nation understood this. That’s why they worked hard to establish a system of laws, i.e. checks and balances which strive both to promote the general freedom of the individual while also safeguarding the rights of others.

The dynamic between freedom and laws goes beyond the political sphere; it also pertains to the moral life as well. In the Gospel today, Jesus redefines the moral law for the Jewish people. To the amazement of his listeners, he sets himself as a higher authority than the Torah they had received from Moses. In doing so, not only does he once again point to himself as God-made-flesh, he also reveals that morality is not just about exteriors, about actions or omissions that are good and bad. Morality is also about interior, namely what exists within our hearts.

Some voices in our culture today say that traditional religions – for example, Judaism and Christianity, maybe especially Catholicism – are too overly fixated on moral rules and regulations: do this, don’t do that. These voices see all of these requirements as limiting our freedom, being imposed upon us from the exterior as if by a dictator, even if divine. Jesus though sees things very differently. By giving us commandments, indeed even by calling not just to exterior observance but interior adherence, God’s law in fact makes us even more truly free.

How is that possible, you might ask? How is it possible to be more free if we have to follow a law more closely? Remember that I said at the start that the purpose of law in society is two-fold: to allow for individual freedom but to guard us from using that freedom in an improper way. The same is true of the moral law. God’s commandments first are aimed at keeping us from doing that which is truly destructive of the rights of others. Jesus gives us some examples: murder, adultery, falsehood. But God’s law doesn’t stop there – rather than merely allow us to operate indifferently within exterior parameters, it also calls us to be transformed interiorly, to be free, but not just free in whatever way we might say – rather in the truest sense of freedom.

It’s a central principle in the Jewish worldview, just as it is in the Christian one, that God has given to each of us a free will. We are, in short, not robots. To each of us he has given us the freedom to think and act as we determine. But God gives us this free will not to use in whatever way we’d like – a freedom indifferent, you might say, to what is truly good for us. Rather, he gives us freedom for excellence – freedom so that we might freely choose that which is good for us, that which truly fulfills all of our capacity to be good. The moral law, then, is isn’t merely intended to keep us from doing wrong; it’s given to us by God to make us truly excellent.

We see how this plays out practically in the Gospel. Jesus doesn’t just want us not to carry out murder; he wants us to be free from every angry impulse. He doesn’t just want us not to commit adultery; he wants us to be free from every adulterous desire. He doesn’t just want us not to lie; he wants us to be from every impulse to falsehood and deceit, to live completely in the truth.

Now you might say, “Well, that sounds really hard.” On the one hand, you’d be right. It’s certainly not easy. It’s even harder if you give into the thinking of so many today – that every moral law is merely a kind of constrictor, something that binds up our freedom. But I think if we search our hearts, we know that that logic is unsound. We know that when we follow our base impulses – our desires for the four pernicious P’s (Possessions, Pleasure, Power, Prestige) – we end up not free but enslaved. Instead, God gives us his grace to follow an understanding of freedom much different than how our culture understands it.

Harold Copping, The Sermon on the Mount (1922)

Authentic freedom comes when we are able to strive for that which makes us truly flourish, the kind of happiness that comes from fulfilling the nature God has given to us. Take a moment to think about whatever sin you most want to be rid of. Maybe it’s something like Jesus mentioned: anger, lust, untruthfulness. Maybe it’s something else: letting go of a past grudge, being envious of your best friend, trying not to be so consumed with worldly success. Whatever it is, God desires you to be free of that – and not just free from it, but able to be good, to be excellent in the opposite way: generous, faithful, charitable, loving. Through the power of grace that comes to us by being in communion with Christ, we learn how to desire what our Father has created us to desire, to find the moral excellence wherein true freedom lies.

Friends, our first reading today from the Book of Sirach tells us clearly that “if you choose, you can keep the commandments.” Set before us, to use the language of Scripture, are good and evil, life and death. We make the choice. But for us who desire to be as God has created us to be, he does not leave us on our own; rather he assists us with his grace to keep his commandments and so choose what is truly for our own excellence. It is a good thing, indeed, to be free, but let us use our freedom well. If we do so, we may be confident that, “what eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart,” that indeed is “what God has prepared for those who love him.”