Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Merle Haggard and Rules for Discernment

Today, my bishop, His Excellency Paul D. Etienne, posted an article (Go read it) to his blog where he connected Merle Haggard lyrics to the Christian life. Basically, as Merle looked for happiness in a bottle and failed to find it, Bishop Etienne saw in that an analogy to how we so often look for happiness in the things of this world, but they fail to satisfy. This world is good because God created it (Book of Genesis) but the Prince of this world is indeed the Devil himself (John's Gospel), so the things of this world cannot satisfy. We only use the things of this world-creation-in order to get to God-the Creator.

During my first year in Denver, I studied the First Principle and Foundation of St. Ignatius's Rules of Discernment. They are guidelines for getting through life, and they are worth sharing:

Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.

The other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him in attaining the end for which he is created.

Hence, man is to make use of them in as far as they help him in the attainment of his end, and he must rid himself of them in as far as they prove a hindrance to him.

Therefore, we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, as far as we are allowed free choice and are not under any prohibition. Consequently, as far as we are concerned we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short life. The same holds for all other things.

Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

I surrender!

Today I preached for the first time at the seminary's daily mass. Seminary masses are a fairly formal affair because seminarians really like their liturgy. Additionally, the mass was in Spanish, so although I preached in English, I really didn't know my lines for any other part of the mass. Seminarians, like all students, are fairly stressed this time of year, so I addressed that stress by encouraging us all to rely more fully on Christ to get through it:

Sed sobrios, estad alerta, que vuestro enemigo el diablo, como león rugiente, ronda buscando a quién devorar

Stay sober and alert. Your opponent the Devil is prowling like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.

Hopefully this line is familiar to you, because we pray it every Tuesday night at Compline. But if you're anything like me, it sometimes comes out as: "Stay sober...Into your hands...Protect us...Restful night, Peaceful death...Amen." When life starts to feel like a drudgery, it's difficult to stay sober and alert. Spring is here, maybe this time for good, were tired from the semester, and we don't want to be alert to these last two weeks of school.

But we must stay sober. We must stay alert. In the pressure and the exhaustion of the end of the semester, it's much easier for the devil to sneak into our hearts and into our seminary. He wants to sneak in here, especially at the end of the semester, when we're vulnerable. He wants to get in here to the seminary and ruin everything we're about, because he knows that otherwise many of us will become priests who will celebrate the Eucharist, this holy re-presentation of Calvary, where the devil suffered his most crushing defeat. The devil can't stand that thought.

But in order to infiltrate this place, he won't surround us with demons like death-eaters surrounded Hogwarts in Harry Potter, he's not going to station visible demons out on Steele or Monroe, he knows that's too easy for us to resist. No, he'll infiltrate us in subtle ways. Maybe he'll encourage a spirit of laziness. Just take the night off, skip prayer, you've been working hard. Maybe he'll encourage spitefulness, because darn it, you've got to tell that brother exactly why he annoys you. Or maybe he'll encourage a spirit of anger because there's just a ton of work to do, and the professors don't understand, and my house father doesn't understand, and no one understands, and hanging onto this anger feels better than surrendering it to Christ.

Msgr. Glenn has given an example of surrender to all of us as we pursue our vocations. This man has surrendered all of his own desires for average parish life in order to serve Christ, his Church, and us, here at the seminary for what 10 years, 30 years? I lose track. Msgr. Glenn, thank you for your model of surrender. Each of us will carry that example with us for the rest of our lives.

But we must surrender everything to Christ in these last weeks of the semester. If we are believers in Christ, this is the time, here at the end of the semester, to prove it by surrendering every evil spirit to him that comes our way. The Gospel passage for today, the feast of St. Mark, strangely enough, comes from the very end of the Gospel, which most scholars, including our own Dr. Gray, don't think Mark actually wrote. But in this passage, which ends with Jesus's ascension into heaven, Jesus lists some signs that will accompany those who believe in him, those who surrender everything to him. That's us, so I want to walk through these signs and see how we're doing.

In my name they will cast out demons. If we surrender every difficulty to him here at the end of the school year, and invoke his name, they will be cast out. They will speak in new tongues. Hablarán lenguas nuevas? Spanish Mass and I wimped out and preached in English. It seems I at least may have some more work to do in this area. They will pick up serpents with their hands. Anyone? I didn't think so. If they drink any deadly thing it will not hurt them. Sometimes after Christmas break the milk is expired, and no one has died yet, so maybe that sort of. They will lay hands on the sick and they will recover. We see this a lot, in one form or another, through our countless miraculous healings in our Church.

In this list of signs, there are several that we really don't see a lot today, especially the snakes and the deadly drinks. I don't think those are just strange things that happen out there in Bible world and don't really happen here in the real world. But I do think that signs like too easily become like throwing yourself off the roof of the temple, where really you're just putting The Lord your God to the test. If in particular circumstances it would be useful for a believer to pick up serpents safely, and that believer really acted from humility and not from pride, then of course I think we'd see signs like this. But I know for me, it would just be putting The Lord my God to the test.

So do not test the Lord in these last couple of weeks. He's got a lot of work to do already, getting us through the end of the semester. Don't add to it by letting those evil spirits of anger and bitterness in here. Watch for those spirits, those attitudes, that are unbecoming for those who are believers in Christ. Be sober, be alert, and cast all your cares on him in this Eucharist.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Other Sheep

I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.

These other sheep, Jesus says today, he must lead to his kingdom. Jesus does this through his Church. God the Father wants to bring all people into his kingdom, and Jesus died and rose to restore our broken relationship with the Father. In his lifetime, Jesus never wandered beyond a very small area around the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee in modern day Palestine. How did he intend to draw these others into his one flock if he never actually travelled beyond his very narrow geographical boundaries? He entrusted this mission to his Church. In his time on earth he couldn't travel personally to everyone he wanted as part of his flock (especially considering he wanted, or rather wants, you, and you weren't born yet). He instituted his Church, invested her with his authority, and sent her to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit."

Christianity today is not doing a great job of representing the one flock under the one shepherd that Jesus intended. How many Christians denominations are there, and how often do their beliefs flatly contradict each other? How often do congregations split over differences in belief? Surely this cannot be the one flock that Jesus talked about. It looks more like several flocks that bicker with each other with one shepherd trying to bring them back together. The sad divisions in Christianity hurt our witness in the world. As we work and pray for visible unity (the assumption: that we are working and praying for visible unity), it is important that we not ignore our differences in the name of unity, but rather we must focus equally on what beliefs we hold in common and what beliefs continue to separate us.

N.B. One of the most fruitful areas of dialogue have been the Catholic and Lutheran dialogue. I recommend reading the Joint Declaration on Justification, released several years ago.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Good Shepherd Sunday

There's a pattern to the reading we hear every Sunday during the Easter season, and it holds true for all three years of our Sunday cycle of readings. Every Sunday throughout the Easter season, we get a reading from the Acts of the Apostles, a reading from the Book of Revelation and a reading from the Gospel of John. This is intentional on the Church's part. Lets zoom out, take a birds eye view and try to see exactly what these readings together tell us. The Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the first apostles and the early Church, just after Jesus ascended into heaven. The Book of Revelation tells about the end of time, which will also be the end of the Church as we know it. So these two readings show us the beginning and end of the Church. Between the two we find ourselves, and the readings from John's Gospel are lessons for us, to teach us how to walk this road from the beginning to the end. This Sunday, as you probably know, is Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year on the 4th Sunday of the Easter season we hear a gospel about Jesus as the Good Shepherd. So the readings all together are really the story of the Church, first the Acts of the Apostles, then John's Gospel as a lesson for us, then the Book of Revelation.

Each week we can see a different aspect of the Church when we view the readings this way. What this series of readings shows us today is a gradual conversion, from disunity and conflict to unity and peace. When we look at the end compared to the beginning, the Good Shepherd is obviously at work, gathering his people into one. In the early Church, in the time of Paul, there was obvious disunion and conflict among the people he was preaching to. When Paul brought the Good News of Jesus Christ to the synagogue at Antioch, there was such jealousy that they kicked Paul and Barnabas out of the territory. But Paul and Barnabas kept gathering, they kept working to overcome the disunity that has plagued man ever since Adam and Eve started blaming each other for the first sin. Paul is trying desperately to gather people together in the name of Christ, and today we see one of the great turning points in his ministry, when he turns to the Gentiles and begins preaching to them. Paul is often known as the Apostle to the Gentiles, and today we see the beginning of that mission.

He was visiting Antioch and he was preaching in the synagogue, which was actually not uncommon. In the ancient Jewish synagogues, visitors would often be invited to proclaim the Scriptures and give a sermon on them. He is trying to preach in the synagogue and the people in the synagogue started to listen and be converted, but then the leaders in Antioch stirred up the people against Paul and Barnabas, the same way the leaders in Jerusalem had stirred up the people against Jesus. This shows us once again that power is always intimidated by the meek and humble Good Shepherd. The Christian message always threatens the powerful of this world.

The Book of Revelation will help us understand how the Good Shepherd works in our own lives, so lets look at that before we look at the Good Shepherd in John's gospel. If you've ever read the Book of Revelation, you know there are some truly strange things there: dragons, mountains falling from the sky, horses with snakes for tails, locusts wearing crowns, and much more! Much of this is allegory or symbolism, we Catholics don't usually subscribe to a literal reading of everything in the Book of Revelation. The basic message through all of that is that God will overcome every trial. Today's reading is a beautiful vision of heaven. We hear about "a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue." My friends, we want to be among this group, because the reading also tells us that is the group that isn't bothered anymore by hunger or thirst or any other hardship. Whatever trials affected them, whatever trials affect us in this life, by the time we reach that point, those trials can't touch us anymore. This is the eternal life of heaven that I'm striving for, and I hope you are too.

How do we get there? If those are the people who have survived great distress, if those are the people who no longer hunger, if those are the people who have every tear wiped away, then I want to be a part of those people. This life is full of distress, hunger and tears. One day, I want to be there. How do I get there? Today's Gospel tells us how. In today's Gospel, Jesus tells us how he is the Good Shepherd, how he is the one who gives eternal life and how no one can take his sheep away from him. We only reach the bliss that the Book of Revelations tells us about by washing our robes in the blood of the lamb.

We can't get to heaven by our own efforts. We can't earn salvation. We know this, but we often act otherwise. The idea that we can work our way to heaven by our own efforts is actually an ancient idea, and the heresy is known as Pelagianism. But we can't work our own way into heaven. We become a part of that Great Multitude from our second reading by relying fully on Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Heaven is a free gift from God, not a reward for following a lot of rules. Jesus brings us to heaven, he carries us, if you will, but he won't carry us with a lot of baggage. While salvation is a gift, our part in accepting the gift is to make sure we aren't carrying anything that is incompatible with that gift.

One of the biggest pieces of baggage we carry in our life is unforgiveness, and we simply cannot hold a grudge against our neighbor or our enemy and expect to take it into heaven. As we watch the aftermath of the tragedy in Boston unfold over the weeks and months to come, we can't allow feelings of vengeance to rule our hearts. Jesus prayed for his executioners while he was still in pain hanging on the Cross, so we also must pray for these two bombers, one living and one dead, even in the midst of the pain they have caused us.

On the other hand, C.S. Lewis once pointed out that it is often very easy to love the enemy whose far away, because that love doesn't require anything from us. On the other hand, it is very difficult to love the enemy we see every day, or the person who has truly and personally hurt us. But again I say, this is exactly the person you have to forgive, because God loves that person and wants that person with him in heaven too. Whether it's a terrorist blinded by ideology, a parent who abandoned you, a friend who turned on you, or whatever, God loves that person, and we can't enter heaven still hanging onto that unforgiveness.

But it's not like we have to find a way to rid ourselves of this anger and unforgiveness that plagues us before we can go to Jesus. That's the error of Pelagianism I mentioned earlier. No, Jesus the Good Shepherd is actually the only one who can heal these things in us. So bring him your hurt, bring him the ones who have hurt you and say, "Jesus, I can't handle this, I can't forgive this person on my own. I need your help." Jesus will help you. He will slowly but surely heal whatever is in you that is incompatible with his love, and he will do it precisely by means of his love. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, will heal us and bring us to the eternal kingdom, if only we turn to him, so sincerely turn to him today, and let him teach you his forgiveness.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Road to Emmaus

The Gospel today is filled with truly heart-rending images. As the two disciples are walking along, alone, you can almost hear the sadness and confusion in their voices when Jesus comes and speaks with them. They refer to Jesus as “A prophet mighty in deed and word,” they had truly hoped in him. “Our chief priests and rulers handed him over,” they felt betrayed by their own leaders. “But we were hoping he would redeem Israel,” they were hoping, but apparently not anymore. And then, the missing body of Jesus just compounded their confusion about the whole affair. Their pain is even evident in the fact that they were leaving Jerusalem. They saw Jesus killed, they can’t find his body, and now the other disciples are reporting visions. Perhaps these disciples thought they were just hallucinations. What’s the point in hanging around Jerusalem any longer?

During his three years of public ministry, Jesus had repeatedly explained to his disciples how all the Old Testament prophecies actually applied to him, so now he does it again as he walks with these two disciples on the road to Emmaus. And then he breaks bread with them, and in Luke’s gospel, this breaking of the bread is the first time the disciples recognize Jesus.

This story is heartwarming because of how gentle Jesus is with the confusion and the sadness of the disciples. He doesn’t appear only to the disciples whose faith was strong; he appears to the disciples whose faith was shaken. He doesn’t appear only to those who understood the resurrection, he appears to those who were confused by the empty tomb, and explains it to them. He guides them into understanding. He doesn’t stand afar off and demand they find their way to him; he walks the road with them.

Just as he does with these two disciples, Jesus walks the road with you and with me. Even when our faith is weak like the disciples: They said “We thought he would be the one to redeem Israel,” and we say “We thought he would be the one to heal my spouse,” “We thought he would be the one to pull our children from their damaging choices.” At times, the trials of this life cause our faith to be weak. Jesus doesn’t stand at a distance, demanding that our faith be stronger, he walks the road to Emmaus with us.

So as we draw near to our own Emmaus in the Eucharist, as we prepare to recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread at each and every altar, remember that no matter how painful or confusing life is, Jesus always walks the road with you.