Sunday, February 26, 2017

Me? Worry?

 Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time   A 

I met Margaret last evening at a little reception following the 4:00pm Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Ogdensburg.   I had spotted her out in the pews earlier during the Mass.  She had the most lovely big, dark eyes, and beautiful curly, dark hair.   She was actually rather captivating.  Now, before you get too nervous, I need to add: Margaret’s not quite two years old….

When I was introduced to her, Margaret had a big cookie in her hands, and was happily nibbling bits of it from around the edge.  Her sippy cup was easily within reach—her reach, and that of her mother and grandparents, as well.  And when I last saw her, as we headed out of the Cathedral together, Margaret had been wrapped in her pretty, pink, polka dotted raincoat, with the hood up to protected her from the rain.


With food, drink, and clothing all taken care of, Margaret seemed to be without a care in the world…with one exception.  As the reception wore on, she began to venture farther and farther into the room, away from her family’s table.  But every 10-15 seconds, she’d turn back to look over her shoulder.   Margaret’s only worry was that she might wander out of her mother’s sight.

How is it that little children, whose needs are so great, manage to live without worry?  Because they have complete confidence that they will be cared for; they have prefect trust that they are loved.

As we continue our reading of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount this Sunday, he repeatedly tells us not to worry: “Look at the birds of the air!  See the wildflowers of the field!  Do not worry and ask, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’”  At first glance, it might seem that Jesus is encouraging us to irresponsibility—to throw caution to the wind and neglect having any concern about the necessities of life.  Nothing could be farther from the truth!  In the first pages of the Bible, we’re told that, from the dawn of creation, we human beings have been given a stewardship over the good things of this world.  We are to cultivate and care for the earth, by means of which God provides for our every material need—with more than enough to go around.  In writing to the Corinthians, St. Paul reminds us that this stewardship extends to spiritual goods, as well.  For them all, we must one day give an accounting—not according to the opinions of our neighbors, but by the judgment of almighty God.

No, the opposite of worry is not irresponsibility.  Jesus isn’t counseling us to be careless, but carefree.  What he wants us to see is that the opposite if worry is faith.

Faith is a word that can have many dimensions.  Three levels of meaning come to mind for me today. 

We can say, “I believe in God,” and mean nothing more than, “I have faith that God exists.”  Most people on this planet have some sort of belief in a “higher power”—whether they believe in a god or gods or some impersonal force that animates the universe.  That’s not the level of faith to which Jesus is calling us.

We can say, “I believe in God,” and mean, “I have faith that the God revealed by Jesus Christ exists.”  This is the foundation of Christian faith: belief in the Most Blessed Trinity—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—a personal God who is an eternal communion of mutual love; and that this divine love overflows for sinful mankind, and is most perfectly manifest in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, who is God-made-man.  But Jesus is calling us to a level of faith even deeper than that.

When we say, “I believe in God,” we need to be saying, “I don’t only believe that God is perfect, eternal love.  I believe that God loves ME—individually, particularly, and personally.  He knows me inside out, and has a plan for my life.  And I believe that to follow that plan, to obey his will, is my only path to real happiness—in this life and the next.  And that’s what God wants more than anything else: for me to be happy with him forever.” 

Jesus is calling us to just the sort of faith, the sort of trust, that I saw in Margaret.  As Isaiah relates it so powerfully, “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb?”  We know of no stronger human bond than that between mother and child…which is why it’s so shocking to ever read the story of a mother abandoning her baby on the steps of a hospital, orphanage, or church.  It should equally sadden and shock that the law of the land permits a mother to end the life of a little one growing within her.  “Even should she forget,” the Lord assures, “I will never forget you.”  It’s faith in that sort of promise that frees us of every worry.  We are to believe that we are constantly cared for, to trust that we are perfectly loved.


If you want to be free from every worry, then you’ll have to put your complete confidence in God—not just for the most part, but 100%.  The trick is, we oftentimes put our confidence in the good things God provides, rather than in God himself—or even mistakenly believe that we can provide them all on our own. 

Lent starts this Wednesday, and it’s a fairly common custom for folks to give up something for 40 days.  When we decide to give up something for Lent, it shouldn’t be something sinful…since we ought to give up our sins not only for a season, but for a lifetime.  No, during Lent the challenge is to give up something good, and do so in favor of something even better.  To practice such freely-chosen sacrifice and self-denial helps to refocus our faith and strengthen our will.  Lent is a perfect time to make sure our trust is where it rightly belongs.

May this Lent be a time that frees you from all worry.  Look to the birds of the air, the wildflowers in the field, to little children like Margaret, and learn to trust in the Lord’s love for you.

In God alone will your soul be at rest.
  

Sunday, February 19, 2017

In the Eye

 Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time   A 

“An eye for an eye…and soon the whole world is blind.”  Gandhi is reported to have said that.  A comic gave it a new twist: “An eye for an eye, and soon…we all look like pirates!”

“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot.”  We find this law—mentioned by Jesus in the gospel—three times in the Old Testament (Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:19-20, and Deuteronomy 19:21).  It sounds quite brutal, even barbaric, doesn’t it?  And yet, it was rather a significant improvement over what came before. 

You see, when we’ve been hurt—or a family member, or our property, or our rights have been hurt—we fallen, sinful human beings have a rather strong tendency to seek revenge: “You injured my eye?  Now I’ll make sure your whole family’s goes blind!”  I wish I could say we’d left this inclination behind back in the Stone Age…but you and I both know that it’s there every day in the morning paper and on the evening news.


The law of “an eye for eye” is actually a way for containing the violence of revenge.  It limits a person to simply “getting even.”   It does not permit you to inflict any more harm than was first inflicted on you…and so it represents a step in the right direction.

Since this was clearly the law on the books at the time of Jesus, did that mean there were a lot of one-eyed, toothless Jews running around?  Of course not!  Actually, nowhere in the Bible do we find any evidence of this law having ever been strictly enforced.   In fact, we know that in Jesus’ day the law was interpreted in favor of paying a ransom: “You knocked my tooth out!  By rights, the law allows me to now knock out one of yours…but that won’t do either you or me any good, will it?  So what’s that tooth really worth to you?  Pay me a ransom for it, and you’ll get to keep it, and we’ll call things even.”  It might only be a small step, but it’s still another step in the right direction!

You begin to see here the long-range lesson plan by which God teaches the slow-learning human race, moving us from revenge, to limited retribution, to a ransom as restitution.  Now, in Jesus, God seeks to make one last big stride forward—all the way to reconciliation: “Offer no resistance to one who is evil.  When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well.”

Scientists tell us that we human beings, like every other animal on the planet, have two basic instincts when we’re under attack: fight or flight.  You can put up your dukes, or turn tail and run.  Those two options make perfect sense in the law of the wild, where it’s all about survival of the fittest.  But we humans are different than all the other animals.  Our lives are not governed by instinct, but free will.  For us, fight and flight both result in certain loss: flee, and you cede the higher grown to the one who does wrong; fight, meeting violence with further violence, and you lower yourself to the same level as the wicked.

Jesus teaches us a third way.  Turning the other cheek can sound rather passive and naïve, but nothing could be farther from the truth.  Jesus is certainly not saying that Christians ought to be the world’s doormat.  To stand your ground when slapped reveals an incredible strength, forcing your oppressor to look you in the eye as you essentially say, “You will not treat me this way.”  The red handprint on your face also forces an enemy to confront his own injustice.  It’s a tactic aimed not so much at conquering your foe, as it is as opening her to conversion.  You put up a counterintuitive sort of resistance—one that challenges the other to repent.  Evil can only intensify when met with further evil, but it is completely disarmed when it comes face-to-face with goodness.  Jesus teaches us to feely renounce our legal right to retaliate in favor of a higher purpose—of something far stronger than vengeance or hate or even death: of the all-surpassing power of love.

The gospel teaching we hear this Sunday is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  It’s the fourth Sunday in a row that we hear a portion of it.  It’s no accident that Jesus is speaking to us on a mountain.  Where did Moses receive the law from God?  On a mountain.  This Sunday and last, as Jesus provides a rather authoritative commentary on that law, his mountainside perch is a subtle hint at who he really is.  But there’s more to it than that.  To ascend a mountain, you must gradually climb higher and higher.  Jesus is calling us to continually greater heights in our relationship with God. 


This Sunday, Jesus is asking us, “What’s your standard in moral action?  How do make ethical decisions?”  Is your standard one of fairness?  (That’s “an eye for an eye.”)  That’s an OK place to start—but come higher.  Is your standard to be better than the next guy: “At least I’m a cut above those tax collectors and pagans!”  Come higher still.  Is your standard obedience to the commandments of God?  That’s the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.  But for disciples of Jesus, that too must be surpassed…

In the Christian tradition, the sayings of Jesus we hear this Sunday and last—“You have heard it said…but I say to you…”—are known as “counsels of perfection.”  They are not substitutions or replacements for the law.  (Jesus assured us last Sunday that he hadn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.)  These “counsels of perfection” call us to yet another standard—to something even higher than the law.  The strict dictates of law provide an essential foundation, to be sure, but meeting them is a matter of minimal requirements.  Just imagine a couple trying to convince you they have the perfect marriage purely by the standard of the Ten Commandments: “We don’t lie to each other, or cheat on each other, or steal from each other.  Heck—we haven’t even killed each other yet!  Ours is clearly the ideal marriage!”  Doing no harm is pretty important in a relationship…but it’s only a start.   There is, of course, no law that says a husband much ever buy his wife flowers—not even on St. Valentine’s Day.  But if he never does anything so generous or tender, one could rightly begin to question if his love were growing cold.  Law requires the minimum; love calls us to always keep doing more.

For those who follow Jesus, who want to grow in their relationship with God, it’s not enough to keep the law; we’re to become more and more like the Lawgiver.  In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus points to the summit saying, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  He repeats what we first heard in Leviticus: “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.”  To truly love one’s enemies—is there any possible way to be more like God than that?  The old saying is spot on: “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”

How are you doing at being perfect?  We strive for it, and keep on trying…but we also keep on faltering and failing.  Did Jesus ask us to do the impossible?  No.  It’s that we go about it wrong.  We mistakenly think we can become perfect all on our own.  St. Paul uncovers the secret: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God?  That God himself—the Holy Spirit—dwells within you?  And where God dwells—his temple—is holy.”  God alone is perfect, and it’s only his presence within that can perfect us.  To be holy, to be perfect, is never a personal human achievement, but always a gift, a God-given grace.  Our part is to be open to receive it.

We sang in the words of the psalm, “The Lord is kind and merciful.”  My friends, let us become more and more like the Lord: treating our friends with human kindness, and treating our every enemy with divine mercy.
   

Friday, February 17, 2017

Making Tracks

You know you've had a good great time when you end up looking like this:


There's nothing quite like icicles hanging off your own face!

That was me yesterday afternoon after a 7+ mile roundtrip cross-country ski (3+ of those miles breaking trail) to the "Sheep Meadow" lean-tos off the Hays Brook Truck Trail (near Paul Smiths).  I hadn't been on my skis in a couple of years (we didn't get enough snow last winter), so it was a bit ambitious...but worth every ache and pain I'm enduring today to have enjoyed all that good snow we got this week...before it melts this weekend.



Sunday, February 12, 2017

Loopholes...or Love?

 Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time   A 

Gentlemen: What’s next Tuesday?  St. Valentine’s Day, of course!  (You can thank me later for the reminder.)  Have you ever seen a list of written rules for St. Valentine’s Day?  I haven’t, either, but there certainly are rules for Valentine’s Day, and the quickest way to prove that…is to break them. 

While the specific rules may vary from couple to couple, there are some that are universal.  I can come up with three. The first: Remember that it’s Valentine’s Day.  This is not a day to be forgotten.    Make sure to do something that shows your sweetheart just how much you love her. 

Second: Make sure whatever you give or do is something she actually likes.  While you might think few things could be better than an entire evening at the Monster Truck Show, that might not be to her liking.  True love puts the needs and desires of one’s beloved ahead of your own.  Give her something, do something for her, that you know will truly delight her heart. 

And third: Don’t try to get by with doing the bare minimum.  It part of love’s logic to do as much as possible, not as little.  You’d never come home with just one chocolate—no, you bring a whole box.  Don’t buy her one flower, but as big a bouquet as you can afford.  Love calls us to sacrifice.


Most of us don’t stop to realize that, like these unwritten and generally unspoken rules for St. Valentine’s Day, all of our relationships are governed by similar codes of conduct: husbands and wives, parents and children, teachers and students, among teammates, between coworkers.   Although they may not appear on paper, such rules are rather important.  They don’t exist to limit or restrict us, but to protect and strengthen our relationships—to put them on solid ground.

The trick is, these relational rules exist within a world of many other laws—things like traffic laws and the tax code.  Our approach to these different sets of rules can sometimes get all mixed up.  Have you ever sent the government more money at tax time than you had to, just out of the kindness of your heart?  Or asked the cop to please, please give you that speeding ticket?  Of course not!  In general, our approach to such rules is to squeak by with the minimum required, to get away with as much as we can, to do only as much as we absolutely have to.  But apply that approach to the rules of relationships…and we get into deep trouble pretty fast.

Our scripture readings this Sunday spend a lot of time considering God’s rules: the first reading, psalm, and gospel all focus our attention on keeping the Lord’s commandments.  We often think about God’s Law in fairly legalistic.  I think of W. C. Fields, the actor and comedian from the early 1900’s.  W. C. Fields was an unabashed atheist.  So—the story goes—when an acquaintance saw him thumbing through a Bible not long before he died, he had to ask, “Mr. Fields, what are you doing?”  “Looking for loopholes,” he replied.  That approach—although common—is completely backwards! 

As Jesus makes clear to us today, expounding on three of the Ten Commandments, the Law of God is a lot more like the unwritten rules of St. Valentine’s Day than like the speed limit.  God’s Law isn’t a system of lifeless rewards and punishments, but is made up of living rules meant to strengthen and protect a relationship.  If we make this mistake about God’s Law, we end up looking at him like the Great Traffic Cop in the Sky, waiting to catch us doing something wrong…rather than, as God revealed himself on the Cross, as the great Lover of souls who will stop at nothing—not even death—to win us for himself.


And so we can apply the three rules of St. Valentine’s Day to our relationship with the Lord.  First, we need to remember.  With Jesus, every day is Valentine’s Day.  Not a day goes by when he does not shower us with blessings, making abundantly clear his undying love for you and me.  Likewise we must, not only on special occasions, but each day, and throughout the day, continually express our love for Christ in thought, word, and deed. 

Second, we must give the Lord the things that most delight his Sacred Heart.  When it comes to interpreting and applying God’s law, we're often tempted to do so in way that revolves around what’s most pleasant to us, rather than considering what’s most pleasing to him.  God has told us what he desires: in the commandments spelled out in the Bible, in the doctrines and disciplines of his Church.  Let’s be sure to give the Lord what he wants. 

And finally, we must not settle for doing the least required.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to answer questions like:  So, just how late can I be for Sunday Mass and still have it “count”?  How often do I really have to go to confession?  In effect, we wonder what’s the bare minimum that’s required to be considered a “good Catholic,” how much we can get away with and still avoid the fires of Gehenna.  Such legalistic thinking isn’t the logic of love!  Jesus makes it clear: if we want to follow him, it’s not enough to have avoided murder, adultery, and perjury.  The rules of this relationship call us to aim much higher: to speak in ways that give life, rather than tear down; to never regard another—even in our hidden thoughts—as an object to be used, but as a person with immense dignity; by our every action, to show we’re someone devoted to the truth.  The question we ought to keep asking isn’t, “How much do I have I do?’ but, “How much more can I do?”

Jesus tells us that he hasn’t come to abolish any of the commandments, or even any part of them, but to bring them to fulfillment.  Let us fulfill the rules of our relationship with God by constantly looking for ways to show him our love.  Blessed indeed are those who follow the Law of the Lord!
   

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Salty and Bright

 Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time   A 

“You are the salt of the earth….  You are the light of the world.”  Unless he’d used air and water, it’s hard to imagine that Jesus could have found two things more ordinary, more commonplace, than salt and light to describe the role and mission of his disciples.  Because these things are so very ordinary, the deep significance of what Jesus is saying can slip right past us.  But considering four everyday experiences we all regularly have with salt and with light can begin to make it clear that the life to which Jesus calls us is anything but commonplace, anything but ordinary.

Have you ever forgotten to add the salt to a recipe—or eaten food by someone who did?  It tastes flat, bland.  Ever tried to walk through a dark, unfamiliar room?  It can be a rather dangerous thing to do!  In both cases, the essential role of salt and light is apparent from their absence.  A little bit of salt doesn’t only make most things taste better; it makes them so that they have taste at all, enhancing the flavors of the other ingredients.  And even just a few rays of light make it possible to safely find our way around.  Just so, we Christians have an essential role to play in the world.  Without Christians and the role we’re called to play, this world would lose its zest.  Without the light of Christ we’re called to reflect, the human race would stumble even more than it does now and completely lose its way.  Jesus asks us to consider the uselessness of salt that’s lost its taste…but that can only happen if it’s not really salt anymore.  Similarly, we can’t even imagine a light that does not shine.  Nor is it possible to be a disciple of Jesus, a Christian, a Catholic in name only.  We have been given something vital to do on this earth, an indispensible role in the world.


Have you ever added way too much salt to something you’re cooking—or eaten food by someone else who did?  All you can taste it the salt!  Have you ever had another driver following right on your tail, and they just won’t turn off their high beams?  The point of having headlights is too make it easier to see the road…but with all that glare in your rearview mirror, you can’t see the road or anything else.  When used as they should be, salt elevates the flavor of other ingredients and light reveals the things on which it shines.  Too much salt, too much light, and they manage to only draw attention to themselves.  So, too, have you and I been sent by Jesus to draw the worlds’ attention to him, and not to us.  The role we’ve been given is an essential one, but not exalted.  Humility is key in the life to which we’ve been called.

Imagine you’re making a pot of soup that you’ll share with somebody else, and as you add the salt, you do so on only one side of the pot, thinking, “I like my soup saltier than she does, so I’ll eat from this side of the pot and she can eat from the other.”  That’d be ridiculous, of course, since the salt will dissolve throughout the soup.  Did you ever try to sneak in after curfew when you were younger, only to get caught because the little teeny tiny light you turned on somehow managed to shine right into your parents’ bedroom?  Light has that tendency, too: to reach into every dark nook and cranny.  In the same way, our faith in Jesus must reach into every area of our life.  Being a Catholic can’t be something we restrict to a single hour on Sunday, or only to certain “religious” aspects of life; it needs to get into everything, mixing into all we think, do, or say.   And we need to shine the light of our faith into the lives of all the other people we meet, whether at work or school, in the store or on the street—family, friend, or stranger.  There should be no place where we don’t make Jesus’ presence known.  Christianity is meant to be a comprehensive way of life—one that ought to be infectious.


Have you ever seen a recipe that calls for a single grain of salt?  Of course not.  To be effective, quite a few are required.  Or imagine that this light bulb is the only one in all of Malone.  It would certainly not be sufficient to light the community once the sun goes down.  But as it is, find a vantage point where you can look on the village in the dark of night, and it’s all the many different lights shining together that make it a rather lovely sight to behold.  As Jesus says, “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.”  The life to which Jesus calls us is not to be lived in isolation.  Our mission is fulfilled best when we all work together.

“You are the salt of the earth….  You are the light of the world.”

The next time you reach for the salt (if your doctor still lets you do that), or flick the switch to turn on the light, don’t allow it be just an ordinary, commonplace gesture.  Let it serve as a reminder of the extraordinary calling we’ve received, the uncommon mission we’ve been given by Jesus.  He has given us an essential role to play in his plan, but one that’s best fulfilled in humility.  Jesus wants us to make his presence known to everybody everywhere, and we do that most effectively when we come together to work as one.  So be salt.  Be light.
  

Saturday, February 4, 2017

A Beer with Brigid

I'm a couple days behind in getting this on the blog, but it's such a great song it's still worth posting.  Kevin Heider's, "St. Brigid's Fire," recalls the 6th century Irish saint's famous description of heaven:

     I should like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings.
     I should like the angels of heaven to be drinking it through time eternal.
     I should like excellent meats of belief and pure piety.
     I should like the men of heaven at my house.
     I should like barrels of peace at their disposal.
     I should like for them pitchers of mercy.
     I should like cheerfulness to be their drinking.
     I should like Jesus to be there among them.
     I should like the three Marys of illustrious renown to be with us.
     I should like the people of heaven, the poor, to be gathered around from all parts.


St. Brigid's feast was February 1st...but I think you could still honor her with a pint...

 

  

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

What Do You Think About Reiki?

The following article was printed in our parish bulletin last Sunday...

I had never heard of “Reiki” before moving to Malone six and a half years ago.  Maybe you haven’t heard of it, either.  But there seems to be a growing interest in Reiki in our community, and a growing number of people providing it locally.  As a result, I am often asked, “What do you think about Reiki, Father Joe?”

“Reiki” is a Japanese word that literally means, “vital spiritual energy.”  According to the International Center for Reiki Training in Southfield, MI, Reiki is a “technique for stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing,” which is “administered by the ‘laying on of hands’ and is based on the idea that an unseen ‘life force energy’ flows through us and is what causes us to be alive.”[1]  Developed in 1922 by a Buddhist monk in Japan, Reiki has become an increasingly popular form of complementary or alternative medicine.  The claim is that a “universal energy” is transferred and manipulated by the hands of a Reiki practitioner, with therapeutic results.


My first thought on hearing about Reiki (as it ought to be for any faithful Catholic exploring a spiritual practice from another religious tradition) was, Does the Church have anything to say about this?  And the answer is, Yes, she does!  In 2009, the U.S. Catholic Bishops issued a document expressing their deep concerns about the spiritual/religious implications of the principles that underlie Reiki.  The Bishops concluded that “Reiki therapy is not compatible with either Christian teaching or scientific evidence.”[2]

Our Bishops are not alone in thinking that it is simply not possible—although it has been frequently attempted—to equate Reiki’s impersonal “universal energy,” which comes from a nameless “source,” with the personal God of Christianity, nor to link Reiki’s “light touch” with the laying on of hands employed in the public ministry of Jesus Christ and his disciples.[3]  As I heard an experienced exorcist reiterate during a conference last year, since Reiki claims to call upon and manipulate spiritual “forces” that cannot be identified as coming from God, it actually violates the First Commandment and even opens the door to diabolical influence, as do other New Age and occult practices.[4]  (Despite his best efforts to convince us otherwise, the devil is quite real and still very much active—an angel of darkness consistently and cleverly disguising himself as an angel of light.[5])

Regardless of its core principles and history, there are many who would argue that Reiki is not—strictly speaking—“religious,” and therefore should be considered in strictly medical and scientific terms.  Yet even secular hospitals that offer Reiki use explicitly religious language to describe it.  Columbia University Medical Center has stated that “Reiki does not follow a religious belief system,” and yet claimed that it works by restoring a patient’s energy from the “universal life source.”[6]  Johns Hopkins describes this form of “integrative medicine” in explicitly religious/spiritual terms, speaking of Reiki as a “form of prayer.”[7]

Even if I were to grant that Reiki is not “religious,” I have been unable to find any convincing scientific research that supports it as good medicine.  Everyone seems to agree that Reiki is “safe” from a medical standpoint—meaning that, being completely noninvasive, there is little risk of causing a patient any physical harm and there are no known side effects.[8]  But not hurting a patient is a far cry from evidence that a therapy actually works.  The American Cancer Society has said that “available scientific evidence at this time does not support claims that Reiki can help treat cancer or any other illness.”[9]  International medical journals, on reviewing the available studies, note that “the value of Reiki remains unproven.”[10]  Even a chart of “relevant citations” from the Center for Reiki Research (a document provided to me by a Reiki Master) only lists two examples of “solid initial evidence”—and one of those concerned the wellbeing of Reiki practitioners, not patients.  For all the talk among Reiki advocates about documented benefits, I’ve had a really difficult time actually finding any reputable documentation.

The only evidence I consistently find is the trend that Reiki is available in a growing number of hospitals and that it seems to increase overall patient satisfaction.  These, however, are matters of opinion polls and surveys, not medical research.  A Reiki Master affiliated with Hartford Hospital (the facility that provided most of the data in the charts from the Center for Reiki Research) makes the peculiar observation that “waiting for the research does not change the fact that patients are seeking healing options such as Reiki and giving us very positive feedback.”[11]  It’s disturbing to think that, at least in this case, public opinion holds more weight than hard facts in decision-making among healthcare providers.

When Reiki became available in some Syracuse hospitals several years ago, a local newspaper took notice—pro and con.  A Reiki Master at the VA clinic there viewed Reiki as “a way to reestablish a physical connection with patients, something that is vanishing as hospitals become more high tech,” and thus making the hospital experience “less impersonal.”[12]  In a 2011 article, the Wall Street Journal cites studies done at such places as Harvard Medical and Memorial Sloan-Kettering, with researchers concluding that the evidence is “still slim”; yet the co-author of one of the mentioned studies thinks that “it is possible that a good rapport between the Reiki therapist and the patients could be the reason for the positive result.”[13]  A doctor who regularly writes for the Connecticut Post looks at the available evidence and is very cautious, but recognizes that Reiki may have a positive emotional/psychological effect on some patients, and in that sense can be beneficial.[14]  It’s important to note that all of the positive aspects that are acknowledged in these articles have nothing specifically to do with Reiki…and everything to do with a more personal and compassionate approach to patient care.  It would be hard to argue against the enduring value of what was once known as a good “bedside manner.”

“What do you think about Reiki, Father Joe?”  Any medical therapy with so little clinical evidence (and so much of that evidence inconclusive at best) should certainly give us pause.  But Reiki is not really a matter of medicine; it is a matter of spirituality, and one that is directly at odds with core elements of our Catholic faith.  I can only echo the position taken by our Bishops, since my research leads me to the very same conclusions: I cannot support any involvement with Reiki, and would advise all faithful Catholics to avoid it for the sake of their souls.  Besides, we Catholics should rather count our blessings that the Church, since that days of the Apostles, has had a Scripturally based,[15] sacramental means in which to experience the Lord’s healing touch.  If you’re seriously ill, there’s no need to go looking elsewhere: seek God’s grace in prayer and ask to receive the Anointing of the Sick.

Postscript

After publishing it, a few parishioners spoke with me about their troubles with this article (and, if reports are accurate, a few more were talking about it with others).  I was so sorry to hear that what I wrote had upset some people. I hope folks know that was most certainly not my intention!  But if my words get people thinking…well, then I’d have to say they have served their purpose.  A few follow up thoughts…

[1] I was responding to genuine questions.  I first wrote a draft of this article in 2012, but only shared it in the meantime with folks who occasionally asked me about Reiki.  I have continued to revise it over the years based on further research and reflection, and finally published it because of a notable rise in the number of people coming to me with their questions.

[2] It is important to keep an open mind.  Some have responded that the Catholic Church’s approach to Reiki seems rather closed-minded.  Being open-minded needs to go both ways.  I simply ask that those who already have a positive opinion of Reiki would take some time to read and consider what the Church actually has to say on the matter, rather than predetermining it “case closed."  As G. K. Chesterton once said so well, "The point of having an open mind, like having an open mouth, is to close it on something solid.”  What the Church has to say—although not always very popular or well-received—generally proves to be pretty solid in the long run.

[3] Things are not always what they seem.  After reading this article, a parishioner called and described for me her recent attendance at a “meditation” session held nearby—an experience that left her feeling uncomfortable.  Hearing her description, I told her she should be uncomfortable: what she had described was not “meditation” at all, but a séance being led by a medium.  She had gone to it quite innocently, of course, but since the Bible is rather clear about the dangers of spiritualism and consulting the dead,[16] I advised she ought never go back.  Likewise, I do not for a moment doubt the sincerity of Catholics who have gotten involved with Reiki—whether giving or receiving it—and that they have had some positive experiences with it as a personal spiritual practice…but things are not always as they at first seem. 

[4] This is not simply a matter of my personal opinion.  The ideas I have shared are not my own (and most certainly were not targeted at anyone in particular, past or present, in my parish or community).  I hope readers will not fault me for teaching what the Catholic Church teaches—on this or any subject.  What sort of priest (or Catholic, for that matter) would I be if I did not acknowledge the Church as the highest authority when it comes to the faith?  Fr. Tom Weinandy, a Franciscan priest and theologian who helped draft the Bishop’s statement on Reiki in 2009, was interviewed by PBS about a year latter; his comments are helpful: "If you try to plug Reiki into Christianity, what you’re saying is Jesus is not good enough on his own. He’s got to be supplemented by something else, in this case, the 'divine forces,' so you’re either downgrading Jesus and Christianity or you’re taking the heart out of Reiki.… I want to stick with Jesus. I don’t want to open myself up to other forces that may be, you know, supernatural in some sense but not of God. I think it’s a risky business to be playing around with this sort of thing.”[17]

[5] I only wrote what I did because I love the flock entrusted to me.  Imagine, if you will, a doctor who declined to warn you about the dangers of smoking because she knew it really helped you to relax and keep your weight under control.  In think we can all agree that her silence would be out of misguided compassion. Of course, she can warn you of the dangers…and you still remain free to smoke.  I have spoken up and shared this Church teaching out of my deep care and concern for the spiritual welfare of the Lord’s flock; what folks choose to do with this knowledge is now up to them.  (And I hope people believe me when I say that this really is my sole motivation in all I do as a pastor!)




[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2117
[5] 2 Corinthians 11:14
[6] http://integrativetherapies.columbia.edu/Reiki.html, as retrieved in March 2012; it also inaccurately stated that Reiki was developed by “a Japanese Christian monk”
[15] Mark 6:13 and James 5:13-15
[16] E.g. Leviticus 19:31, Deuteronomy 18:10-12

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Hungry for Righteousness

No homily to send you this Sunday: I just pulled in this morning (at 12:10am), having spent the last few days as one of the chaplains for two busses of young people from our Diocese taking part in Friday's annual March for Life in Washington, DC. Accompanying these young people was quite exhausting...and also incredibly encouraging. To see these teens standing up for Christ and standing up for life fills a guy with great hope!



"Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied."

Matthew 5:6