Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Lev 19: 1-2, 17-18; I Cor 3:16-23; Mt 5:38-48]

In an article on monastic formation in community, the late Benedictine abbot Ambrose Wathen concluded with the comment that “if you live with monks, you will become a monk; if you live with clowns, you will become a clown.” Those we live with, those with whom we share community and relationships, have a strong influence on the kind of person we become. We only learn to discover and become ourselves through the support, affirmation, encouragement and correction of our families and primary communities. We are fortunate when those communities offer firm structure while at the same time welcoming and accepting our efforts at being free and unique persons. Our identity and self-esteem is something we learn and we earn. It is gained only by taking risks with our identity in mutual exposure and giving that we come to know ourselves and don't become simply a reproduction of rules and organizations. There must be times and places where we say: “this is who I am.” There is something unique, unprotected, raw, and even sacred about this kind of an experience. It is more than just excelling in a certain pattern: “I am a really special clown, better than the rest.” Maybe—but we are still a clown and are not in touch with our selves. What is the community to which we belong? What community is shaping our lives?

The liturgy and its readings unveil for us the community which we are, into which we have been born by baptism. “The temple of God is holy, and you are that temple.” “Be holy, for I am holy.” “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” They address us at the level of who we are. These are imperatives which burst out from the new relationship in which we stand. Reality is holy because of its relationship with God. But it is not a static qualification, something that can be located or put in a box. Vatican II awoke the Church to its universal call to holiness. The Holy Spirit has been sent to all people to move them interiorly to love God with their whole heart and strength and to love their neighbor with the very love of God. Sanctification is a gift which has drawn us into a new community of life. Those who share in this community experience the holiness and spirit of God as the force which moves them to support, affirm and help others to live and grow in this new communion. The imperative flows from the “indicative”, from the new relationship to God which is now the deepest source of our being, of “who we are.” We are not being presented with an unreachable goal, a utopia which predestines us to failure. Nor is the Sermon on the Mount a proposal offered for our consideration and deliberation. It is the pattern of life, the supporting structure, the real expectations from which we to learn to find our true being and live from the Spirit of holiness already implanted in our hearts.

Paul Tillich once wrote a book entitled The Courage to Be, reflecting on the fact that courage is a primary form of being, of someone who is really alive. Obeying the imperatives of our new being will require courage. It calls for the willingness to risk our selves in bringing the reality of God's holiness into our lives and our world. Romano Guardini has said that “courage which accepts life and meets it honestly in each situation implies a conviction that there is within us something that cannot be destroyed, something which draws strength, nourishment, and deepening through every experience rightly faced and this something comes from the creative power of God.” It obviously requires courage to resist the definitions and categories within which most forces of society seek to herd us. It is the creative power of the Spirit of holiness moving us interiorly to form new communities and bonds of understanding and acceptance, even with our enemies. We are struck on our cheek every time someone wishes to demean us, to shame us, to relegate us to a lower social status. The spirit moves us to respond out of the freedom and community we share with him which dissolves relationships based on humiliation. When we are subjected to the enslavement of legal and social systems which place a price on personal value, which attempt to make our lives commodities or agents of enclosed economic systems, then we can affirm a quality of life and being that is free to separate itself from possessiveness in the security it has in the gift of the Spirit. “All belong to you, and you to Christ, and Christ to God.” The use of coercion and force to make us go into service for a mile becomes helpless in the face non-violence which sees the oppressor as a brother or sister who can be redeemed by the experience of patience, acceptance, and understanding.

Meeting the conflicts of life in honesty offers us the opportunity to experience God and the spirit of holiness as we risk obeying the law of love of the Kingdom, of the new community being built up as God's temple and dwelling place. This community is incompatible with the community of violence, force, oppression, and retaliation. The latter is a community forged by chains which enslave those who rely on them. From chains of violence, we are freed to enter a communion which thrives on non-discrimination, disinterestedness, understanding, and the unselfish love which never turns its back on someone in need. We are free to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.

Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Is 43:18-19, 21-22, 24b-25; 2 Cor 1:18-22; Mk 1:1-12 ]

From the feast of the Baptism of the Lord to the beginning of Lent the gospels are about Jesus manifesting himself to the people. The gospels of the third and fourth Sunday—summarized in the 5th Sunday's gospel—tell us the mission of Jesus: it is to preach and to drive out demons. These gospel's show us His authority over demons and illnesses. Today we are shown His authority over sin and the law.

Jesus first called us to repent and believe in the Good News. To repent means to have a change of heart. A change of heart is a change in what affects us. In the past, such demons as avarice, anger, and sadness have affected us; they dictated our behavior. When He called us to believe the Gospel, He didn't mean do historical or literary criticism; He meant to let the Good News affect us. He then cast out demons that prevented that.

But what if, by following the crowd of popular culture, we have set our hearts on and organized our life around pleasure, possessions, and status to the point of forgetfulness of God? And what if that “following the crowd” lifestyle has left us paralyzed with such demons as anger and sadness; in other words, what if we find ourselves unable to change? What happens if we find ourselves devoid of faith?

Today's gospel tells us to follow a different people. It tells us to find and be affected by a community of faith, represented by the four mat bearers. It was they who found a way through the barrier of the crowd.

This is exemplified in the book we are reading in refectory, “Amish Grace,” in which a community-of-faith that is not following the crowd of American culture is able to pass on the forgiveness that has so deeply affected them. The forgiveness of the Amish that the book examines is situational forgiveness of perpetrators of tragedies toward their community members. The cultural leaders in the media react with cynicism and suspicion. The forgiveness of today's gospel that the Amish—and I and all of us—are so aware of is much broader and deeper. It is the forgiveness of God; the forgiveness of our forgetfulness and our turning to something else and settling for “relief,” rather than release from our demons. The forgiveness of God affects us; it wounds us, it wounds us very deeply.

Jesus hints that forgiveness is easier to claim than to accomplish since its effects cannot be observed. Restoration of walking is a visible manifestation of the restoration of the soul. What is restored in a forgiven soul?

Faith, hope, and love in One Thing are restored. The unity of the person is restored. The freedom to be affected by ultimate goodness is restored. To say that this is a remarkable experience is an understatement.

With God's forgiveness, one no longer conforms his life to the personally satisfying. One has a new sense of what is important, of what matters most. We become oriented to what has real value, to what is important-in-itself. Our will and our mind are able to unite toward an end, rather than be divided over many different means to the satisfying.

To center one's life on the merely satisfying is called a “lifestyle.” To live toward value, to live toward the “important-in-itself” is a “way of life.” That is a big change in what affects us.

The ability to grasp values, to affirm them, and to respond to them is the very foundation of the Christian way of life in general and of the monastic way of life in particular. St. Benedict, with his emphasis on humility, calls this “Reverence.”

Reverence is an attitude we take toward the world when its goodness-in-itself affects us in the light of the gospel. It acknowledges there is something greater than self that obliges us to make an adequate response. That response is one of submission to the thing as it is, not as it can be merely useful to us for pleasure or status. In reverence we silently allow the other to disclose itself to us, whether that other is a flower, a person, or God. Reverence is essentially a contemplative attitude of listening and allowing the object of our attention to touch us, to move us. Benedict tells us that this is the fruit of the Steps of Humility.

The forgiveness of God makes this reverence possible; more than that, it makes it personally necessary. Reverence overcomes the selfishness of the self-satisfying. We are not forgiven for our personal comfort, but in order to be useful to others. Jesus did for the paralytic what he could not do for himself.

He continues to impart this forgiveness. The forgiveness of God would be a mere “neat idea” or “sentiment” except for this: It wounds us where we are most vulnerable; it wounds our pride. Like the paralytic, the wound is inflicted the moment we accept what we know we do not deserve; when we are given something which it is literally impossible to pay for.

When we experience this wound, we are to do as the paralytic did: “And he rose, picked up his mat at once, and went away in the sight of everyone.”

Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: 1 Sam 26: 2-23; 1 Cor 15: 35-50; Lk 6: 27-38]

Love your enemies. Winston Churchill and Lady Astor were not exactly enemies, nor were they friends. Lady Astor was the first woman elected to the British House of Commons. Churchill complained that a female in Parliament was like a woman entering a men’s room. That started a whole series of biting exchanges between them. One day Lady Astor hosted a costume ball. Churchill was wondering what disguise would suit him. She suggested, “Why don’t you come sober?” He didn’t. At the party she embarrassed him before everyone saying, “Mr. Prime Minister, you’re drunk.” He replied in a louder voice, “Lady Astor, you’re ugly. Tomorrow I will be sober, but you will still be ugly!” She said caustically, “If you were my husband, I’d put arsenic in your coffee.” Churchill retorted, “Madam, if I were your husband, I’d drink it.” They were not exactly enemies, but they were close to it.

Jesus said, “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, if someone strikes you on one cheek, offer the other as well, if someone takes away your outer garment offer the inner one as well.” It is hard to love the unlovable as Jesus loves them. How can we reach such a high level of love for those who don’t like us? We learn to love those who treat us badly by first learning to love the ordinary people we encounter every day who are neither enemies nor friends, doing to others as we would have them do to us. In a random group of fifty people, about five of them will really like you and be your friends. About five others won’t like you at all, and probably never will. The other forty, the vast majority, really don’t care one way or the other. But wonderful things happen when our love reaches out to this larger number of people, the stranger, the foreigner, those of other faiths and colors who enter our lives.

Such is the story of a young priest named Fr. Caruana.1 It was Dec, 1902. He was the first customer in the little store of Jewish immigrants, a newlywed couple named Esther and Solomon Ueberall. Father’s face was as somber as his black suit. “Why are you so sad?” they asked. Father told them his small church would be closed unless he paid a $500 debt. His poor parish did not have the money. They said, “No, no, that must not happen in America. Your house of worship must stay open. We will get the money for you.” So they pawned their rings and wedding gifts for this stranger of another faith. They begged from relatives and friends until they raised $500. From then on, every Monday, Fr. Caruana came with his small Sunday collection to pay them back. Over the next 18 years the little store and the small church grew in friendship. Then Fr. Caruana received an assignment in Rome, and Esther’s husband, Solomon, died suddenly of a heart attack. The shock was so great she lost her eyesight for two years. Esther’s son and daughter managed the store and gradually she healed. Another twenty years passed and Hitler marched into Austria, her husband’s place of birth. His relatives began sending letters to Esther, begging her to help them escape the death camps by getting visas to America.

Esther obtained visas for as many as possible until the immigration quotas were filled. After that, each letter was like a knife stabbing her heart because she could not help any more. In desperation she went to Washington DC and learned that refugees could still find sanctuary in Cuba if a prominent person there would sign for them. Esther went to the Catholic church she and her husband had saved from closing. She asked for a letter of introduction to the bishop in Cuba. The pastor wrote a letter, and also sent a cable to announce her coming. When the plane landed in Havana, Esther went down the steps and was handed a bouquet of roses. Looking up she saw the bishop in a red robe smiling warmly. She was puzzled until he said, “Esther, don’t you remember me?” It was Father Caruana. He had become an archbishop and was sent to Cuba as the papal nuncio. She collapsed with tears into his arms. With his help many more Jewish families escaped to Cuba where the archbishop sheltered and fed them until they could find new homes. They were saved from the Holocaust because many years before a young Jewish couple gave their love to a complete stranger of another faith.

It is daunting to love our enemies, but isn’t it also a giant task to love the larger number of people around us who are neither enemies nor friends? Yet Jesus said, “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” the stranger, the foreigner, people of other faiths and colors. Bless them, pray for them, do good, give and lend. In our duty to love, no one can be excluded. Whose heart is that large? How can we learn to love so many people? Cardinal Newman writes, “God’s merciful Providence has in the natural course of things narrowed for us this large field of duty. We are to begin by loving our family and friends. … By submitting to their wishes though contrary to our own, by bearing with their infirmities, by overcoming their occasional waywardness with kindness, by dwelling on their excellences … and so we form in our hearts that beginning of charity which is small at first, but like the mustard seed will grow to overshadow the earth.2 We will reach the heights of loving our enemies if we learn to love the ordinary people around us. And we will love this larger number of people we encounter every day if we begin by truly loving our family and friends.

But even loving those closest and dearest to us is not easy. Who will teach us how to love? Two young children, a brother and sister, were told to be good to each other because God is watching them all the time. They became nervous and fearful of God until their dear grandfather took them in his arms and said, “Yes, God sees you all the time, but he is not watching to catch you doing something wrong so that he can punish you. Rather, God loves you so much that he cannot take his eyes off you.” At the center of the Christian life is the possession of a great treasure, God’s love for us. We learn to love by being loved. We are loved by Love, by Jesus who died for us, who gives us his heart and his Spirit in this Eucharist. It is the Holy Spirit who inspires and enables us to really love our family and friends, to reach out to the multitude of ordinary people around us, and to give our enemies a cup of coffee not laced with arsenic but with sugar.

Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Is 43:18-19, 21-22, 24b-25; 2 Cor 1:18-22; Mk 2:1-12]

Jason and EdwardJason visited his barber for a haircut. Since his customer came in outside his regular schedule, Edward, the barber, asked him for the special reason. Jason gladly said, “Well, together with our pastor and some parish council leaders, we are paying a visit to the bishop. I have to be properly groomed.” Edward has heard of the head of the diocese and his messages to his flock. How he wished he would have an audience with him someday too! Then he requested Jason to remember him when he would see the bishop and bring home some of the things the bishop would share with them. Proudly, Jason said, “I surely will remember you, and whatever I receive from him, I will share half of it with you!

A month has passed when Jason came back for a new haircut. Edward asked him about the visit to the bishop. Remembering about it, Jason said, “Oh, yes, it was a very cordial meeting, as the bishop warmly welcomed us and spoke to us.” Edward inquired, “Did you remember me to him? Perhaps he gave you some take home gifts.” “Oh, yeah,” Jason replied. “Here it is,” he said, as he brought out his hand outside the mantle and motioned three stroke-chops with his open palm. “Where is his gift?” Edward asked. The man repeated his gesture of a three chop stroke. “And what did you receive?,” Edward further inquired. Jason then with his open palm faced down made a horizontal cut on the wind. “What does that mean?,” said the curious Edward. “Oh,” Jason said, “when we were about to leave, the bishop said, ‘I want you to take this home with you.’ We knelt down before him and then with his hand, he made a triple sign of the cross. So one half is yours, the other half is mine!

It may be hilarious, but then we may be asking, “Is that all there is to the visit?” In today’s Gospel (Mk 2:1-12), after closely watching Jesus speak to the paralytic who was painstakingly brought to him from the roof, the scribes, the elite legal group in the Jewish society, reacted adversely. When they heard Jesus tell the sick man, “Child, your sins are forgiven,” they were ready with a possible charge against Jesus. “He is blaspheming. Who alone but God can forgive sins?,” so they conferred with one another. The disciples lowered him through the roofThey were expecting something extraordinary. Anybody can say those words, except that he is blasphemous! Jesus knew what was going on in their hearts and reproached them. But to prove that he, the Son of Man, had the power to forgive sins, he told the man, “I command you: Stand up! Pick up your mat and go home(Mk 2:11). At that instant, the man did what he was told to do. What an extraordinary feat! At the sight of his and his companions’ faith, Jesus uttered the word of healing. The man was healed not just in his paralyzed body, but more importantly, in spirit crippled by sin.

From the Gospel story of this Sunday, we may consider three things: The first is that Jesus reveals himself as a Healer, both of the body and the spirit. It is a physical healing that made the paralytic to walk, and a spiritual healing through the forgiveness of his sins. People flocked to Jesus for the miracle that he wrought. In this instance, he shows them that the more important healing goes beyond regaining physical well-being. It was for this reason that he comes to us. In the medical field, we speak of the intrinsic relationship of the body and the spirit. Physicians prescribe that for holistic healing, one must clear himself also of spiritual blocks to gain immediate physical healing. Spiritual fasting may serve as a good motive for dieting. Faith healers recommend that prior to the laying on of hands on the sick, it is better that they have received the Sacrament of Reconciliation or have gone to confession. Jesus shows us that the salvation he offers comes as a total package of healing of both the body and the spirit. He can physically heal us, but more significantly, he can forgive our sins. He is the Son of God.

Secondly, we appreciate the supportive value of a faith-community. We may live as hermits but still there is always a need for a backup community. We may be immersed in the world of men, doing the things of the world, but unless it is a community of faith, we may get lost, weary and sick. When Jesus saw the paralytic being lowered from the roof of the house, he was touched by the faith of his companions and uttered the words of forgiveness to the sick man. Faith heals, that is, God’s healing forgiveness finds a smooth path to man by his faith and that of the community. Some commentators muse whether the four men who brought the man to Jesus from the roof could have been the first disciples, Peter, Andrew, James and John. Actually this could not be farfetched. Child, your sins are forgiven. Stand up.  Pick up your mat and go homeSince the house where Jesus was staying was most likely the house of Peter, the four disciples were there to help him. The four companions of the sick man could have approached one of the disciples for the emergency solution. From there, the four disciples could have lent their hands. As the paralytic was being lowered by the four men, the four disciples were below guiding the stretcher right to the center of the house where Jesus stood. What a beautiful imagery of the value of prayer and faith! A beautiful Christian practice is that we ask one another for prayers. In times of needs, we tell a friend, call up the monastery or come thereby for prayers by the monks. Whether near or far, we believe that prayer helps a lot in the healing done by the Lord. Aside from the requests for prayers, posted at the board or via phone messages, the monastery also receives words of gratitude for the prayers and healings people experience in the Lord. In praying for one another, we also find the value of our Sunday gatherings in prayer and the Eucharist. We not only present our weak selves in need of healing. We also pray for one another and the needs of the whole world.

A third point concerns the paralysis itself. We do not want to experience paralysis or even some stabbing pains in the back or joints. In such cases, we immediately go to the doctor for diagnosis. What the Lord tells us today is to beware not just of the physical disability, but also of the spiritual paralysis. Sin cripples. Past sins continue to paralyze us. That is why, from the book of Isaiah, the Lord exhorts us, “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not(Is 43:18). The past could be our tormenting past faults, mistakes or sins. The past is past and through forgiveness, our sins have been wiped out clean. “It is I who wipe out your offense. Your sins I remember no more,” says the Lord (43:25). Furthermore, he says, “I am doing something new,…in the desert, I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers(43:19). I recall a friend who once came to me for the Sacrament of reconciliation. He felt very low and burdened. With the gift of absolution, he felt lighter. One year has passed since then, and in his lightness of heart and spirit, he gladly shares the joy of healing to others. There is obviously an overflow of God’s grace in him like a river, the smooth path in his life to the Lord. Now he diligently helps others to the Lord for the same healing.