Twenty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time

Scripture Readings: Jer 20:7-9; Rom 12:1-2;  Mt 16:21-27             

“For everything there’s a time. A time to be born and a time to die, a time for work and a time for rest.”  Today, as in the time of Jesus, there are three places in Israel where Jewish families like to go for a vacation: first, swimming in the Mediterranean Sea; second, boating on the Sea of Galilee; and third, hiking on the southern slopes of Mount Hermon with its beautiful streams and forests. 

From time to time Jesus and his disciples also wanted to get away for a while. One time they went to the sandy beaches along the Mediterranean Sea by Tyre and Sidon. Another time they went boating to find a deserted place along the Sea of Galilee where they could be by themselves.  In today’s gospel Jesus and his disciples are enjoying the spectacularly beautiful area in Northern Israel, at the foot of Mount Hermon, with its lush groves of pomegranates and fig trees, its hiking trails, and cool springs of water to escape the hot sun.  

It was here in this peaceful and restful setting that Jesus first told his disciples that he was going to suffer greatly and be killed and rise on the third day.  It is like the times when parents have to break the news that one of them has a terminal illness and is going to die.  Peter revolted, saying, “God forbid, Lord!  No such thing shall ever happen to you.”

But then Jesus said it would happen to all his disciples.  “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me” because there really is no happiness without the love of Christ that draws us to share in his sufferings to save the world.

Edith Stein, St. Teresa Benedicta, writes: “Becoming one with Christ is our happiness on earth.  Love of the cross in no way contradicts being a joyful child of God. Carrying the cross with Christ fills one with a strong and pure joy, and those who do so are builders of God’s kingdom, they are authentic children of God. … To suffer and be happy in suffering, to have one’s feet on the ground—walking on the dirty and rough paths of this earth—and yet to be enthroned with Christ at the Father’s right hand, to laugh and cry in this world while singing the praises of God with the choirs of angels—this is the life of the Christian until the morning of eternity breaks forth.1  For Edith Stein that morning came in Auschwitz . She embraced the cross and died a marytr. 

Jesus and his disciples never had another chance to take a vacation together. Their final journey to Jerusalem began here, at the foot of Mount Hermon.  As they set out on this last long walk that would end at Calvary, Jesus said to them, “Whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”  Now this is amazing!  These men of little faith, who feared suffering and death, nevertheless continued to walk with and love Jesus.  And that is what we are trying to do, even if it leads to martyrdom.

Eight years ago, Cardinal Timothy Dolan spoke at a Symposium for International Religious Freedom.  He said that violence against Christians continues around the world.  Then he said this most astonishing thing, that there are seventeen new martyrs for their faith every hour of every day all year long.2  

 I could happen to any of us. But we do not turn back, we keep walking with Jesus, we will not be disgraced because we are in love.  For we know there is a time to work and a time to rest,  a time to die with Jesus and a time to rise with Jesus

1. Saint Teresa-Benedicta of the Cross [Edith Stein] (1891-1942), Carmelite, martyr, co-patron of Europe, Love of the Cross, 24/11/1934 (Institute of Carmelite Studies)

2.  Zenith,  dailyhtml@list.zenit.org,  9-13-2012. 

                 

 

Twenty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time

Scripture Readings: Sir 3:17-18, 20, 28-29; Heb 12:18-24a; Lk 14:1, 7-14  

One day a little girl said to her mother, “When I grow up I want to be a nurse.” Seeing an opportunity to inspire her daughter with a desire to achieve great things in life, her mother replied, “Yes, honey, you could be a nurse. You could even become a great surgeon, or a highly respected lawyer like your father, or a world famous fashion designer. Maybe even president of the United States. You can be anything you set your heart on.” As the child took in all these possibilities her eyes opened wide and she asked enthusiastically, “Can I really be anything I want?” “Yes,” her mother replied. Excited, the little girl said, “Oh, then I want to be a horse!”

When Jesus was invited to the home of a prominent Pharisee, he was confronted with the same problem faced by the girl’s mother: how to inspire a desire for true greatness.  The child’s desire was naïve, beneath her dignity as a human being, and fortunately impossible. But the Scribes, the Pharisees and even Jesus’ own disciples were also naïve in their desire for places of honor and positions of power that will perish. Like the little girl’s desire to be a horse, their desires were too small. They didn’t know the place to which they were called at the wedding feast.  Do we?  What is our place?

Mark Twain once observed that cats are able to exalt themselves and get away with it. A cat will sit on the softest chair in the living room as if it was head of the household. A few thousand years ago, cats were worshipped as gods, and apparently they have never forgotten it!  But to be like God is not their destiny. We are the ones who are called to share God’s nature and to have a place at the divine wedding feast.  What is our place?

When Jesus was invited to dine in the home of a leading Pharisee, all eyes watched him closely, not to follow him, but to pull him down while lifting themselves up. Jesus in turn was watching them, noticing how they took the places of honor. So, he reminded them of a saying in the Book of Proverbs, “Claim no honor in the king’s presence, nor occupy the place of great men; for it is better that you be told, ‘Come up closer!’ than that you be humbled before the prince” (Prov 25:6f).  What is our place at the divine wedding feast?

In the story of Alice in Wonderland, Alice says to the Cheshire cat perched on the branch of a tree, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”  The Cat replies, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” Alice says, “I don’t care much where.” “Then,” replies the Cat, “it doesn’t matter which way you go.”  There was at least one guest at the Pharisee’s house that evening who really cared which way he was going. Like the good thief on the cross he saw that true greatness is to be with Jesus in his kingdom. So, he boldly expressed the deepest desire of his heart in front of everyone, saying, “Blessed is the one who will dine in the kingdom of God!”  He wanted a place at the heavenly wedding feast.

We know where we are going, and we know the way, but what is the place to which we are invited at the divine wedding feast?   Two days ago, in his homily, Fr. Alberic told us.  He said, “Our place is that of the bride, we are God’s bride!”  You can’t find a place higher than that!

 

       

 

Twenty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Jer 20:7-9; Rom 12:1-2; Mt 16:21-27 ]

“You duped me, Lord…,” Jeremiah cries. “…and I let myself be duped!” Why? “…because I must cry out…[the word of the Lord] becomes like a fire burning in my heart…I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.”

Jeremiah has had an experience of God. His life can never be the same. He has been given a deep conviction; a new sense of identity, of who he really is. And he has been given a mission and with the mission comes marginalization in his community. He experiences “derision and reproach.” Yet he persists in his mission. He actually renounces grasping at certainty and order. He renounces having the upper hand in his own life. His sense of conviction is that deep.

It is a deep sense of conviction, of identity that Jesus is getting at today. To follow Him we must no longer think in human terms; we must think as God thinks. And he teaches us a way to think like that. In ones deepest heart, one must prefer the Father in the midst of adversity.

To do this, Jesus tells us, we must first “wish.” It is a matter of forming the will. We form an intention; we make a decision. The decision is to “come after me.” Such a decision is both essential and inadequate.

And so, Jesus says it requires three elements: first, we must deny ourselves. This is the most critical part of Jesus' invitation. It means one's own will is not the controlling factor in one's own life. We forgo things we value for the sake of something that has a pressing claim on us. This is where we discover our inadequacy. We must be able to feel this pressing claim. It must be an inner experience. As with Jeremiah, it must upset us to try to ignore it. A key reason for the dissonance between our belief and our practice is that we don't really care about the belief. It is not felt. It is merely interesting. We are lacking in real, inner experience of love. Adversity reveals this to us. The Cross corrects it.

And so the second element is to “take up your cross.” Adversities are only adverse to those whose love is wrongly directed. One can only bear a cross if one is headed for the kingdom. Otherwise, adversity is just another case of “stuff happens.” When, under the pressing claim of the Kingdom, we take up the cross we begin to truly care about the belief that claims us.

The third element is to endure the consequences of a public faith. Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it and if he loses it for Christ's sake he will find it. We must be ready to lose the self that the world approves rather than to protect it.

So it is a deep sense of conviction that Jesus is getting at today. It is exactly at this deep personal experience and the words that express it that all temptation attacks. It is aimed not at objects or body parts, but at an inner experience.

That inner experience is a humbling one as we realize our desire for God does not give us the power to take up the cross. We must rely utterly on grace. And at a gut level we must want that grace very, very badly. What we need is a change of heart.

Jesus' first invitation to us was “Repent and believe in the gospel.” It is a call to let the gospel affect us. Now, He invites us to take up the cross as a response to that Good News. Taking up the cross shows how His person and His teaching have affected us. A change of heart is a change in what affects us.

Twenty-Second Sunday of Ordinary time

[Scripture Readings: 2 Mac 7:1-2, 9-14; 2 Thes 2:16-3:5; Lk 20:27-38 ]

I am a cradle Catholic. I received my Catholic faith from my mother. When I was about 6 years old, about 1953, I was sitting in the living room one evening with my family and we were talking. Television had not as yet gotten to the east side of Des Moines, or at least not to our house. So families talked to each other. Mom was a cradle Catholic and Dad was not Catholic. I'm not sure if he was even baptized at that point. Mom was trying to get him to convert.

There was a belief that was common at the time that only Catholic's went to heaven. It was never church teaching, but it was commonly believed. Bearing this in mind, Mom said to Dad, “Bill, when you die, don't you want to go to heaven?” Dad said, “No dear, I want to be with you.”

Obviously both Mom and Dad expected to be together … somewhere … for eternity … and they liked that idea! They, and many who are happily married, couldn't imagine separately finding a greater happiness. And they are half-right! The happiness is indeed found in a union. That is why marriage has always been a metaphor for the spiritual life: union is its objective. It points us to heaven. Union is the objective of monastic life. Union is the achievement of love.

Marriage, with its “one-flesh” union, existed from the beginning to point us toward the union of Christ with His church. In the resurrection, our ultimate union with God will happen. Marriage will no longer be needed to point us to heaven when we are in heaven.

In this life, though, union is most delightful after a period of absence. Whether the absence be emotional, as after an argument, or physical, as after one has been on a trip, the union rewards the faithful orientation of the heart. St. Bernard tells us we have a similar experience in the spiritual marriage. We walk, he says, by the two feet of consolation and desolation. There is alternation. Sometimes we feel the presence of God, at other times He seems absent. As in marriage, if we felt the joy of presence and union constantly, who would esteem it? But occasional absence of any kind increases our appreciation in proportion to the absence.

Union is a natural result of self-donation. Pope John Paul II called this self-donation “the nuptial meaning of the body.” It is the call to love as God loves. It is naturally inscribed in our bodies. Any vocation, whether to marriage, the single state, or monastic life, is a call to self-donation through others made in God's image.

In the light of the story I told at the beginning about my parents, all this probably raises two questions in your minds: The answer to the first is “Yes, although no longer married in the next life, Mom and Dad will be together … somewhere.”

And second, “No, I did not enter monastic life to avoid spending eternity with Mom and Dad.”

Twenty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Deut 4:1-2, 6-8; James 1:17-18, 21b-22,27; Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23.]

Back in 1977, Susan Sontag wrote a notable book: Illness as a Metaphor. One of her contentions was that the medical and scientific world used religious vocabulary and imagery to express the impact and working of illness, at the same time as religion itself was losing influence in culture. I would like to borrow her insight and say that today hygiene has become the contemporary metaphor we use to understand and explain to ourselves how we are to deal with unseen threats to our lives. Bacteria and germs are invisible menaces, bearing potential illness and possibly death. We have developed skillful techniques for controlling these threats. The root of words such as contagion and contamination is tangere, to touch. Avoidance of contamination then depends on keeping one's distance, on not touching, on cleanliness and antiseptic washing.

What is certainly valid for physical hygiene slips through subtle metaphors into our approach to all forms of threat. We especially fear the hidden, invisible threats and menaces that might contaminate our culture, our style of life, our ways of thinking. We fear that we can become infected before we realize the danger that is posed. We have already taken the Trojan Horse though the gates. An ounce of prevention can ward off contagion, can keep us unstained by the world. We can keep our own systems of belief healthy and intact by vigilant border patrol. Our rituals for avoidance and separation are as well-defined as those of any belief system.

In societies which had a more developed sense of the sacred than we now possess, they were keenly aware of the need to protect those boundaries between the Holy and Sacred and what was unclean or just common and profane. The power of the Holy was indeed something to be feared, dreaded, and approached only with respect and caution. Their God was a consuming fire whose very Holiness was more than the human could bear. Their rituals and practices were originally intended to purify the believers, to acclimate them to bear exchange with the Holy One, to give them protected access to the Sacred by transforming their lives.

Instead of observing boundaries between what is sacred and what is profane, we have adopted practices of spiritual hygiene by the way we compartmentalize our lives. What is private is not public, what is individual is not communal, what is rational is not spiritual, what is emotional is not socially useful, what is hidden is not real. We have become adept jugglers of enclosed boxes which are sealed from contamination, even from one another. Suffering no longer has power to change or transform. It is only something to be avoided or eliminated. We have lost the interest and time for approaching any invisible center to our lives which might throw us off our balance, which might distract us from the serious business to which we are devoting ourselves. In all this, we have laid aside the command of God and instead cling to human traditions. We no longer are sensitive to a divine imperative speaking to our hearts or from out hearts. We are no longer sure if we are honest or only pretending, the meaning of hypocrisy. We know the right words and all the formulas, but our hearts are far from God. They are in a separate compartment. Somewhere.

Our practice of spiritual hygiene, our rituals, our personal traditions can create a sense of comfort, of cleanliness and order, of well-being and well-doing. But often at their root is a need to avoid contact with an invisible menace, a lurking disease. This could really mess up our lives. It is a sense of dread that escapes our best efforts. We can hardly admit or name the dread that inspires so much of our precaution and separation. Perhaps it is the dread of isolation and rejection, of failure, collapse, or economic destitution. The dread of debilitating illness, of suffering and death. Merton, in his book Contemplative Prayer, writes that “dread is the profound awareness that one is capable of ultimate bad faith with himself and with others; that one is living a lie.” Self-questioning can never occur without a certain existential dread, a sense of insecurity, of lostness, of exile, of sin. Our compulsion for avoidance of contamination, for an abhorrence of all messiness, may end up alienating us from the nearness and touch of God.

The readings all emphasize the awareness of a God who has come close, who has consented to defile himself by becoming sin for our sakes, who has brought the holy into the midst of our lives, dissolving many of our favorite boundaries and borders. The apostle James knows this God as the giver of all perfect gifts, the environment of goodness in which we live, the unchanging presence of stability and fidelity, the planter of the Word of life in our hearts who tends and cares for that seed so that it will come into fullness in Christ. Not an absent, untouchable, unmoved God. But a God who can use even our sufferings, losses, failures to bring about a transformation and change in our lives that make us embodiments of his holiness. What we most dread can be touched by the flame of a God who is a consuming and transforming fire. Our very hearts can be touched.

Twenty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Sir. 3: 17-18, 20, 28-29; Heb. 12: 18-24a; Lk. 14: 1, 7-14 ]

One of the challenges we face when reflecting on passages of scripture is that the books of the Bible were written between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago, and the oral traditions on which they are based go back even further. How are we to make the message of the Bible and especially the message of the gospels meaningful for us today? If I were invited to a formal dinner and places were not already assigned, I do not see myself competing for one of the places of honor. However, I do not see myself going to the last place either. I think I would go somewhere in the middle. I think that would be true for many of us. Most of us do not see ourselves as either first or last. We do not see ourselves as exceptionally brilliant, but neither do we see ourselves as ignorant. We do not see ourselves as wealthy, but we do not see ourselves as poor either. Being a predominantly middle class society most of us see ourselves somewhere in the middle on just about any scale of characteristics you might come up with.

How do we relate to this morning’s gospel? The guests that Jesus was observing were acting out of the social conventions of their time and culture. When we choose a middle position we are acting out of the social conventions of our time and culture. While we need social conventions if we are not to be stepping all over one another’s toes that is not necessarily putting Jesus’ teaching on humility into practice. Knowing who we truly are is at the basis of humility. St. Bernard has written that we should avoid that ignorance that gives us too low an opinion of ourselves. If we have gifts and talents we should acknowledge them, but we should realize and acknowledge that they are gifts from God and not our own achievement; and behave accordingly.

An anxious concern about either secular or religious status misses the point that where we stand in respect to this world’s values is not what gives us worth. What gives us worth is where we stand in the eyes of God, and God’s approval cannot be reduced to any conventional system of status symbols. God searches the heart and not our external status. There is a story that St. Bernard and his monks were celebrating the solemnity of Mary’s Assumption with all the honor appropriate to Mary. At the time of the liturgy a lay brother who was in the fields tending the sheep stood up and recited his Aves and Paters. It was revealed to St. Bernard that this monk’s simple prayer was move valuable in the eyes of God than the elaborate liturgy in the Abbey. Whether the story is true or apocryphal it makes the point that we cannot assume that we see things the way God sees things.

Ultimately we are called to eternal happiness with God and with all the angles and saints. That transcends our ability to understand and to express in language and behavior. We use our language and behavior to point to life with God, but life with God is always infinitely more than we can comprehend and express. All our attempts at self-aggrandizement will fail. Our happiness in this life and in eternity is to be content with the life and place in God’s plan that God has chosen for us.

Twenty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Deut 4:1-2, 6-8; James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mk. 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23]

“Being an imposter is a tough habit to break.” Dr. Robert French, a psychologist, joined New Melleray in March of 1945, taking the name Br. Richard. He wasn't really a psychologist, he didn't even have a high school diploma, and his real name wasn't Robert French. He was the Great Imposter, Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr.1 In 1938 as a husky, round faced youth of 16, Waldo, who wanted to be called Fred—or anything else but “Waldo”—dropped out of Central Catholic High School in Massachusetts and joined the Trappists in Rhode Island. At the outbreak of World War Two he left the monastery and enlisted in the Army. Not to his liking, he deserted the Army and joined the Navy. Soon he went over the hill again, this time to the Trappists at Gethsemani. But Fred was lazy, more of a Gyrovague and a Sarabite than a Cenobite. He wanted the habit of a monk without the discipline, so he abandoned the Abbey in Kentucky and came to New Melleray. We were no easier. He only lasted two months here before running away a third time, not only from us but also from himself. This amazingly intelligent, unschooled pretender assumed a variety of identities, always wanting to be Somebody by becoming Somebody Else. He wanted to be called “Doctor” without the hard training and education it requires. Faking a PhD from Stanford he taught psychology at Gannon College in Erie, PA, and then philosophy at St. Martin's College, in Olympia, WA. At length the FBI caught Waldo and sent him to eighteen months in prison for desertion from the Army and Navy in time of war.

After he got out of prison, his life as a Master Imposter moved into high gear. He went to Canada and met a young surgeon named Dr. Joseph Cyr. Fred stole the doctor's identity and credentials. Then he snuck off to join the Royal Canadian Navy at age 29. Without a background check, he was commissioned as a surgeon-lieutenant on a Canadian destroyer and sent to Korea. He bluffed his way through some minor operations until one day he was confronted with a South Korean soldier who had a bullet near his heart. Without hesitation young “Dr. Cyr” opened the man's chest, removed the bullet and sewed him up. The operation was a complete success. He acquired such a lustrous reputation for saving lives that the Royal Navy issued a press release about him. When the real Dr. Joseph Cyr read the article he notified authorities. Embarrassed by their mistake, the Royal Navy quietly dismissed Waldo in 1951 and sent him packing to the United States.

Back home a newspaper reporter asked Fred about his future plans. He said, “I don't know… Being an imposter is a tough habit to break.” Apparently so. In 1955 posing as Dr. Benjamin Jones, he was employed in a Texas penitentiary until a prisoner recognized him. So he fled Texas and turned up at a high school in North Haven, a small island off the coast of Maine. There, the chubby, 250 lb. teacher with a Harvard accent using the name Martin Godgart, taught English, French, and Latin. People liked this jolly Santa-Claus-like teacher so much that when the state police came in Feb., 1957, and led the imposter away the islanders were sorry to see him go and wanted him back. But Fred Demara said it wouldn't work. He was too lazy to earn a teacher's certificate. He enjoyed his deceptions too much. When he died of a heart attack in 1982, Fred was a lonely, deeply depressed man. His physician described Waldo as a broken man who had wasted his talents. He wanted a doctoral degree without earning it, or a monk's habit without the labor of humility and obedience.

The Great Imposter is a model or type of anyone afflicted by sloth and deception. Fifteen hundred years ago St. Benedict, in his Rule for Monasteries, taught that a monk should not wish to be called holy before he is holy; but first to be holy, that he may really be called so” (Ch. 4:62). The dishonesty of Waldo Demara is repeated by people seeking employment who embellish their resumes with “creative writing” to appear better educated and trained than they really are.

Jesus warned against that kind of creative hypocrisy. When he called the scribes and Pharisees “hypocrites” he was saying, “You actors, Scripture may be the lines you quote, but it is not the script by which you live.” Purity of heart is a tough habit to acquire.

Once an athlete was offered a million dollar contract to pose for billboards advertising liquor, but he did not drink. He went to his pastor and asked if it would be hypocritical to pose for an advertisement that would lead others to drink. The pastor thought it would be wrong, but he said, “Since so much money is involved I'll consult the bishop.” He never replied. Sometime later the athlete drove past a billboard and there, holding up a bottle of that very tasty liquor, was the Bishop.

St. Gregory of Nyssa teaches that it is difficult or even impossible to overcome all temptations of the heart. He writes, “Whose eye is without sin, whose hearing is without reproach, who is a stranger to the pleasure of gluttony, who is pure from all sins occasioned by touch. One is envious … another arrogant … another given to anger or lust. Who can say his heart is clean from all these interior movements of the soul?2 Jesus knows we are tempted many times a day. A sincere person is not someone who is never tempted, or who never falls, but someone who seeks the grace of God to resist temptation and who falls less often and gets up more quickly.

A brother came to the desert father, Abba Poimen, and said, “Father, I have all sorts of tempting thoughts and because of them I am in peril.” The holy monk replied, “Spread our your shirt to stop the wind from blowing.” “I can't,” he said. The wise old hermit told him, “Neither can you prevent evil thoughts from coming into your heart. Your work is to resist them.” Purity of heart is a tough habit to acquire and being an imposter is a tough habit to break. The slothful never make the effort. They are hearers but not doers. Blessed are you if you seek the grace of purity of heart every day. You will see God.