Sunday, July 28, 2013

Follow the Thread

After Mass last evening, a parishioner stopped to say: "Father, I once got called out in confession for saying I was 'partly sorry'..."

   Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time    

I’m going to call her Wanda.
(While that’s not her real name, the rest of her story is true.)
About two or three months ago, 
Wanda called wanting to “talk to a priest.”
Experience led me to assume that she was looking for assistance:
that she’d be asking me for food, shelter, or cash.
But I was wrong.
Wanda’s concerns were spiritual.
She wanted to talk about her exceptionally troubled life.
She wanted to talk about the bad choices she’d made.
She wanted to receive the sacraments—
to go to confession and be anointed—
and to make a fresh start.
We talked about the changes she needed to make in her life.
We talked about her need to stay close to Christ and to the Church.
She left with a rosary, and made a commitment to pray it regularly.
I think it’s safe to say that we were both feeling pretty hopeful as she left.

Wanda called while I was away at Guggenheim,
and I returned her call this past Thursday.
We hadn’t been in touch since that first meeting…
…but I had seen her name in the police blotter just a few days later.
Needless to say, I wondered where this conversation was headed,
since our first one didn’t appear to have had much of an effect.

Wanda admitted to having some more trouble after she’d seen me.
“I got in a fight with my daughter,” she said,
“which landed me in the hospital and my name in the paper.
Thank God, the charges were dropped.
I knew I was being tested, Father.
I knew I needed to get out of that bad environment.
So I moved out on my boyfriend—
and told him I wouldn’t move back unless we got married.
I headed to Plattsburgh, where I found some help:
got counseling, a small apartment, and a part-time job.
And I’ve been going to Mass every Sunday.”

“What good news, Wanda!”  I told her.
“But that’s not what I wanted to tell you about, Father,” she said.
“I wanted to tell you about the rosary.
You see, I ran into this homeless woman,
whose husband was spending all their money on booze.
I found out that she was Catholic,
and that she wanted to make a fresh start—like I was doing.
So I gave her sixty bucks to buy some food for her kids,
and I gave her my rosary.
I told her, ‘Pray a decade of it everyday for me,
and I’ll pray a decade every day for you.’”

Wanda continued:
“Father, I wanted so bad to know how she was doing,
so I couldn’t help myself and asked God for a sign.
And there I was, waiting in line at the grocery store,
when I noticed that the man in front of me had a rosary.
I was bold and asked, ‘Do you say it everyday?’
That’s when he pulled it out
and I recognized immediately that it was my rosary!
(And I’m sure it was mine, because it had been broken
and I had tied it back together with a piece of purple string.)
I blurted out, ‘That’s my rosary!’
and the man said, ‘No, I don't think so!’
So I said, ‘Then Joanne gave it to you.’
And he froze and asked, ‘How did you know?’
I told him about the purple string.
I told him about meeting her.
He told me he was Joanne’s husband.
He told me she’d fed the kids for two weeks
with the money that I gave her.
He told me she’d moved back to Montréal,
where she was getting the help she needed.
And then he said, ‘Before she left, she gave me this rosary
and said, “Pray a decade of it everyday for me,
and I’ll pray a decade every day for you.”’”

In many ways, the rosary is the quintessential Catholic prayer.
Even Catholics who have not faithfully prayed it in life
often ask to have a rosary placed in their hands at death.
It’s long string of beads—with the cross as their anchor—
are an apt symbol for some of the lessons about prayer
which the Scriptures put before us this Sunday.

Prayer is like a chain in the way that the habit of prayer is passed on
from one person to another, from one generation to the next.
Lord, teach us to praythe disciples beg in the gospel.
Of course, they already knew something about prayer,
but they wanted to pray like Jesus:
with great confidence and in intimate union with God.
And so the words and example of Jesus
have been handed down to the present day.

But I worry that the chain is getting broken.
We’re in need of some purple string.

Every year, as I meet with our second graders
preparing for First Holy Communion,
I’m saddened to see how they struggle
with the most basic prayers—if they even know them at all.
Things don’t seem to get much better
among our teens preparing for Confirmation.
And while at Guggenheim,
one of the counselors shared with me his concern that nobody—youth or adult—
seems to know the correct words to our customary Grace before Meals.
I responded with what I hear in the confessional:
I’ve lost track of how many time people have professed
to being “hardly sorry” for having offended God.
It would seem that those who know the traditional words
don’t take too much time to actually consider what they’re saying.

Which tells me that the repairs needed in our chain of prayer
aren’t so much in strings of Our Fathers and Hail Marys.

The tradition of prayer we most urgently need to recover
is speaking to God—one-on-one—from the heart.
St. Thérèse—the “little flower”—defines prayer so simply and beautifully:
            For me, prayer is a surge of the heart;
            it is a simple look turned toward heaven,
            it is a cry of recognition and love,
            embracing both trial and joy.
Is that not the kind of prayer we hear coming from Abraham,
who respectfully but daringly negotiates with God to save the city of Sodom?
And is that not the sort of prayerful persistence which Jesus encourages,
since we have a heavenly Father who only wants what is best for us?

Now, we can't very well pass on what we do not have for ourselves.
Prayer can be studied in books and discussed in sermons,
but it is best learned from another disciple.
Do you know any good pray-ers?
The sort of people to whom others turn
when they face a crisis or have an important request?
Ask them about their habits of prayer.
And straight away get to practicing what you learn.
Trust me: if what you’re saying to God comes from the heart,
then the only way you could do it wrong would be not to pray at all.

I thanked Wanda on Thursday for telling me her story.
And I sent her three rosaries:
one for her, and two more to give away.
Let’s follow her example:
let’s strengthen and lengthen that chain.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

'Tis the Season

...and the temperatures even feel like it!  Last night, we celebrated Christmas (Eve) in July, complete with a live (or should I say "lively"?) Nativity, a Christmas tree that tells a story, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and a visit from St. Nick.  It was a fun time, as the photos make pretty clear...


Sunday, July 21, 2013


   Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time    

When the babysitter was unexpectedly delayed,
Grandpa found himself suddenly watching
his six-year-old grandson at breakfast. 
So he scooped up two steaming bowls of oatmeal.
“Do you like sugar?” he asked, and the boy nodded.
“How about some butter, too?” and the kid nodded again.
“And what about milk?”
“Sure,” the six-year-old replied.
No sooner had Grandpa placed the bowl in front of the boy
did the young man make a sour face and push it away.
“But you said you liked sugar, butter, and milk!”
the confused grandfather protested.
“I do,” said the boy, “but you never asked if I like oatmeal.”

Sometimes, it’s what matters most
that most easily escapes us.

Since the 1970’s,
time-management gurus have been teaching people
how to set A, B, and C level priorities—
with the A group made up of the most essential things. (cf. A. Lakein)
To give an example of how it works:
former President Bill Clinton recalls reading about this technique 
and drawing up a list organizing his personal goals
when he was just out of law school.
“I’m sure I have that old list somewhere buried in my papers,
though I can’t find it,” Clinton writes.
“However, I do remember the A list.
I wanted to be a good man, have a good marriage and children,
have good friends, make a successful political life,
and write a great book.” (My Life)

There’s great value in listing your priorities like that…
…because most people spend most of their time working on the C’s.
Because C level priorities are much easier to accomplish,
and generally give the impression
that you’re actually getting something done.
You can keep busy all day, every day, on the C’s…
…and never quite manage
to get to the really important stuff.

What proves to be a common-enough temptation
on the job, with studies, and concerning yard or housework,
also has its spiritual ramifications, doesn’t it?
We’re so often like Martha—
occupied with matters closer to the surface,
anxious and worried about many things—
and so slow to sit still like Mary—
giving our full attention to that place
where the Lord’s feet rest on the ground of our lives.

We can see this pattern when we Catholics gather for Mass.
Since the reforms of Vatican II,
there’s been a trend to find ways
to give as many people as possible something special to do:
to gather the collection or bring up the gifts;
to sing in the choir or read from the pulpit;
to hand out bulletins or distribute Holy Communion.
Mass is a whole lot busier than it was 40 years ago!
But while all this involvement is a good and helpful thing,
I’m afraid that the constant activity
frequently has the opposite of it’s intended affect:
obscuring the work of the One
who ought to be the most active of all, and that’s Christ.
We can be too busy
getting our job done and focused on doing it right
to truly allow the Lord
to accomplish his work in and on us…
…which is the whole point, right?
Since any amount of meaningful stillness and silence
is missing from so much of the rest of our lives,
we’re increasingly uncomfortable with it here in church, too.
And I’m not just talking about before and after Mass;
take just a few moments of quiet during the liturgy,
and everybody’s clearing their throats
or checking their watches,
wondering if I’ve lost my place or fallen asleep.
It’s not unlike the “multitaskers,”
reading through the news in the bulletin
while the Good News—the very Word of God—
is being proclaimed.
We get our C’s way ahead of our A’s.
What’s the hurry?  What is most important?
Why can’t we sit, linger, and let things sink in a bit?

We see the same inclination beyond the walls of the church
as society forgets about first principles
and gets it’s priorities all out of whack.
The late American author Walker Percy once noted,
"[In] spite of great scientific and technological advances,
man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing."
In our drive to develop and discover—to stay on the cutting edge—
we’ve forgotten that just because we can do something
doesn’t mean that we should.
The result is engineering without ethics.
Consider the rapid growth of social media—
things like Facebook and Twitter—
how billions put so much personal information out there in cyberspace,
but only now are we considering the deeper questions
of securing legitimate privacy
and protecting the innocent from seduction, stalking, or slander.
And the tendency seen in machinery and software
is also increasingly effecting the actual ongoing existence of civilization
as human sexuality is gradually redefined.
Technology and culture continue to tear at
the natural bond between marriage, sexual intimacy, and procreation:
what began with finding ways to have sex without making babies
has progressed to now making babies without sex.
Let our C’s eclipse our A’s long enough,
and we begin to do without the oatmeal completely;
what was once taken for granted gets all topsy-turvy.

In last Sunday’s gospel,
Jesus gave us his two great commandments—
a brief summary of the entire law:
first, that we love God with everything we’ve got,
and then that we love our neighbors as ourselves.
The order they’re given in is crucial:
Jesus is laying out A, B, and C.
We see the same pattern playing out this Sunday
as he visits Martha and Mary:
one sister has put the details of hospitality
(and maybe even the need to be noticed)
ahead of being truly present to her distinguished guest,
while the other relishes one of friendship’s greatest treasures:
the simple joy of being together.
Jesus makes it clear who has chosen the better part—
and so gained the only thing necessary.
Why would we ever settle for anything less?

Is a genuine friendship with Jesus your A-list priority?
And if not, then what is?
Why has it gotten ahead of him?
What consequences is that having on your life?
And how can you get things back in proper order?

In the Eucharist, Christ comes to you as a guest
no less than he once did to Martha and Mary.
What sort of welcome will the Lord receive
when he enters under your roof?

Be sure to choose the better part.

Sunday, July 14, 2013


   Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time    

A Sunday school teacher was telling her class
the story of the Good Samaritan.
She described the man’s sorry state in graphic detail,
and then asked, “If you found a man on the roadside—
all wounded, bruised, and bleeding—what would you do?”
Which is when a thoughtful little girl raised her hand and said,
“I think I’d throw up!”

You know I often like to start my homilies with a little joke.
Finding the right one can take some time…
…not because there aren’t enough jokes out there,
but because so many of them shouldn’t be told in church.
Some are simply too risqué.
Some use foul language.
But there’s another entire category of jokes
that are generally off-limits
because of the hurtful stereotypes they perpetuate.
If I were to tell a joke about a blond,
you’d expect her to be…dumb.
If I were to tell a joke about an Irishman,
you’d expect him to be…drunk.
And if I were to tell a joke about a Jew,
you’d expect him to be…cheap.
(There…you’ve passed your quiz on stereotypes!)

When Jesus mentioned the Samaritan
in this Sunday’s gospel parable,
many who heard him surely thought
that he was working up to a joke…
…and the last thing they’d have expected
is for that Samaritan to be…good.

In modern English, you almost never hear the word “Samaritan”
without first hearing the word “good.”
We even have “Good Samaritan laws”
which require us to do good.
But to the Jewish audience of Jesus’ day,
there was nothing at all good about Samaritans.
Try to imagine talk of a “good Al-Qaeda terrorist,”
and you start to get the idea.
Without a doubt, Samaritans were
the much-maligned and long-hated enemy.

Realizing that really changes up
how we hear the details of this familiar parable.
Because, you see…
…Jesus doesn’t want you to be a Good Samaritan.

We’ve taken this parable
and turned it into a mushy morality tale:
a nice story about being nice,
about performing random acts of kindness.
It makes us feel good
about giving money to our favorite charities
which feed the hungry, shelter the homeless,
and otherwise bandage up the wounds of our hurting world…
…without requiring us to dirty our own hands
or get too close to the yuck.

But is that what it really means to love your neighbor as yourself?
Because if someone only chose to love me from a safe distance,
I’d be pretty quick to question if it was really love.

What is Jesus telling that scholar of the law?
What does Jesus want us to do?
Jesus wants us…
…to learn from our enemies.
…to listen to the people we hate—and who hate us.
…to look again at the ones whom we fear and despise.
…to do quite the opposite of what we were taught as children:
to go out and talk to strangers
and to those who are very different from ourselves.

That rather turns the tables, doesn’t it?
We’re not the wise, wealthy, and powerful ones
who must reach down to fix what’s broken and poor;
we’re actually the one who’s beaten badly,
left on the roadside for dead.  (cf. D. Henson)

After reading my homilies last Sunday
about our need as members of the Church
to really get to know each other, to reach out,
and to build a truly Christ-centered community,
a friend responded in an email.
Mike talked about his experience one Sunday at Mass
when he noticed a new-comer in the church.
He also noticed that,
while many people had looked him over very carefully,
not one person said hello
and several even avoided the stranger.
Mike said,
            We went up to him after Mass to introduce ourselves
            and find out who he was.…
            I have to admit it was a little bit of an effort on my part, too;
            it would have been easy
            to just “go about my business” after Mass,
            but this time I was blessed
            with some curiosity and consideration
            to at least say hello to this guy.
            And…I met some of Christ in a traveler and fellow Catholic.
Mike went on to reflect,
            We are a strange bunch, [us] Catholics!
            We have Mother Teresa, who takes care of everyone,
            and we have people at church who avoid community
            while at Mass or just after it.

When Mother Teresa began her work in the slums of Calcutta,
what was it she sought to bring to the dying and destitute?
Food, medicine, and shelter, to be sure.
But something else, besides—
something which no “Good Samaritan law” could require:
she sought to bring them love,
and not just the love of one generous woman
and her band of sisters,
but the very love of God.
As one author puts it,
            The human law can keep me from shooting my neighbor.
            It cannot keep me from hating him.
            The human law can tax me to support a soup kitchen.
            It cannot make me love the hungry.  (A. Esolen)

Can I recognize that I am not among the world’s saviors,
but instead among those in need of saving?
And can I also recognize that God is the ultimate stranger,
that God is the consummate new-comer,
that the living image of the invisible God—Jesus Christ—
is “the” Good Samaritan,
who will take any risk and spare no expense
to love my beaten, bruised, and bloodied soul back to health?
Ask for the grace to personally experience that love—
that Divine Love which made himself your neighbor—
with all your heart, with all your being,
with all your strength, and with all your mind.
But be careful!
Because you’ll never, ever be the same again!

You take your neighbors with you wherever you go.
Sure, they’re lying in the slums of Calcutta.
But they’re also sitting over in the next pew.
Move in closer to them.
Listen to them.
Love them.
That’s what God has done for you.
Now go, and do likewise.