Twenty-Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Num 11:25-29; James 5:1-6; Mk 9:38-43, 45, 47-48 ]
Using computers comes naturally to kids. They even think in computer language. One young boy, learning the Lord's Prayer, said at the end, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us some e-mail.”
He heard what was familiar to him: e-mail rather than evil. That can happen to us as well. We can hear what Jesus is saying through the filter of our own familiar culture, but that can cause us to miss the enormity of his challenges and warnings.
To deliver us from evil Jesus said, “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better to enter into life with one eye, hand, or foot than to be thrown into Gehenna, where the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” We don't take these words literally, because evil does not come out of our hands, feet, or eyes, but out of our hearts. For years I took this saying of Jesus as a metaphor to resist unruly passions, to guard my thoughts and to practice mortification.
But I was missing the full gravity of Jesus' warning. He spoke these words when he was on the road to Jerusalem where he would experience the ultimate struggle with evil on Calvary, where he would suffer not just the loss of a hand or a foot or an eye, but his whole body, where he would die by crucifixion.
When St. Mark wrote this gospel for the community in Rome it was suffering severe persecution under the emperor Nero. Peter had been crucified, Paul had been beheaded. Some Christians were burned as lanterns to light the paths through Nero's gardens at night. For these Christians being willing to cut off a hand, or to pluck out an eye was a metaphor for an even greater sacrifice, a willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice of life itself. As Christians we might have to lose our lives, to be martyrs, to die rather than be cut off from Christ. And, of course, that is beyond our strength. We need the grace of a martyr's love.
Here in the United States we might not be called to the act of martyrdom, but we are called to have the heart of a martyr, to be willing to die for Christ. To receive such a grace Jesus urges us to pray for it every day. In Luke's gospel Jesus says: “Watch at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Lk. 21:36). Our final deliverance from evil will not be an escape from dying, but an escape by dying to enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Perhaps someday the young boy who wanted our heavenly Father to deliver some e-mail will discover that God has done something far greater: he has sent his Son to deliver us from the unquenchable fires of Gehenna, and he has sent his Holy Spirit as a letter written in hearts to give us the grace to be martyrs and to bring us to everlasting life.
Twenty-Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Ezek 18:25-28, Phil 2:1-11; Mt 21:28-32]
One son said, “Yes, sir,”” but he did not go to work in the vineyard. It was a good beginning but a bad ending. In a sermon titled “Promising without Doing,” Cardinal Newman writes, “We know that it is our duty to serve God, and we resolve to do so. We are sincere in desiring to be obedient; yet we go away, and presently, without any struggle of mind or apparent change of purpose, we go away and do the very contrary to the resolution we have expressed.“1 It ‘s like this riddle: Six frogs were perched on a log. Four of them decide to jump into the pond. How many are left? Only two? No, six. Because there’s a difference between deciding to jump and actually jumping, between good intentions and good deeds, between profession and practice.
A father tried to engage his daughter in conversation. He asked, “How’s your sophomore year in college going?” She replied, “Good.” He continued, “And your roommates in the new dormitory?” She answered, “Good.” “How are your classes this year?” She said with a groan, “Good.” Patiently, her father tried again, “Have you decided on a major yet?” She nodded a silent, “Yes.” “Well,” he asked, “what is it?” She answered, “Communication.” The distance between good intentions and good actions can be wickedly large.
The Scribes and Pharisees, the Chief Priests and Elders professed to have hearts full of faith and ready obedience to the will of God, but they refused to believe or follow John the Baptist and Jesus. So Jesus told them a parable about a respectful son who disobeys, and a disrespectful son who repents and goes to work in the vineyard. He asked, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” Why doesn’t Jesus offer a third, more desirable option: that of a son who respectfully says “Yes, sir,” and then cheerfully obeys. That’s the kind of son with whom they would like to identify. Is Jesus being unfair by the way he phrases his question, giving only two choices?
Is he like the prosecutor who asked, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” Is the question of Jesus like some of the choices on the MMPI psychological test that candidates for religious life are often asked to take? For example, question 487: “I have enjoyed using marijuana.” If I say “True,” I enjoyed it. Or, if I say, “False,” then I didn’t enjoy it. What about a third option, “I never used it“? Or, question 430: “I am often sorry because I am so irritable and grouchy.” If true, then I’m sorry I’m so irritable; if false, then I’m not sorry. But what if I’m not irritable and grouchy? Has Jesus unfairly left out a third choice, that of a respectful child who obeys? No, for Jesus is the only Son who has always shown the Father respectful love and perfect obedience, fulfilling his promise, “Behold, I have come to do thy will, O God”. Whether Scribes and Pharisees, or tax collectors and prostitutes, or monks and guests we have all been disrespectful or disobedient, or more often, both. There’s only one choice: we all need repentance.
On one level we may seems to be respectful and obedient. We are law abiding, we follow the rules. Once an old television program called Candid Camera, put signs on two telephone booths at a busy location: one phone booth was labeled “Men” and the other “Women.” No one violated the signs. Even when there was a line at the men’s phone booth, and the other one was empty, no man used the booth marked for women, and no woman tried to use the one marked for men. We obey the rules. Another example: there was a story in the New York Post, on Nov. 30, 1971, about five heavily armed men who robbed a bank, injuring several people in the process. But a female bank teller escaped into the women’s rest room and closed the door. A gunman chased her but stopped at the door and shouted at her to come out. She refused. Finally he gave up and helped his colleagues finish robbing the bank and its customers. He might be a thief and a murderer but he would not enter a women’s restroom! We obey the rules, but the obedience Jesus is talking about is far more demanding.
St. Paul writes that we have all sinned, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one”. Who is entirely free of all complicity in the great social sins of our times: the inequitable distribution of this world’s goods; or the violation of human life at its earliest and latest stages; or contributing to the root causes of terrorism and war? Who has never injured someone’s reputation, or never acted selfishly , or never given in to pride? Cardinal Newman writes, “Even the best are uncertain, they are great and they are little again, they stand firm and they fall.“2 The Scribes and Pharisees began well by their reverence for the law of Moses and their zeal for worship in the Temple of God. But they ended badly, by not believing or following God’s own Son, even putting him to death. Cardinal Newman continues, “Obedience is so difficult at every step in our Christian course, that we often fail in the great interval between promising and doing. St. Peter himself said, ‘Though I die with Thee, I will not deny Thee,’ yet straightway he went and denied Christ three times,“3 even though Jesus forewarned him. We know what is right, we promise what is right, and still we fall.
One day Charlie Brown stoped at Lucy’s booth for psychiatric help. He confesses, “My trouble is I never know if I’m doing the right thing. I need to have someone around who can tell me what is the right thing to do.” Lucy replies, “Okay. You’re doing the right thing. That’ll be five cents, please!” Charlie Brown walks away with a smile on his face. Later he returns with a frown. Lucy asks, “Back already? What happened?” He says, “I was wrong. It didn’t help. You need more in life than just having someone around to tell you the right thing.” Lucy says, “Now you’ve really learned something! That’ll be another five cents please.” Even when we know the right thing to do, we often act badly. So, Jesus presents us with the example of the son who repented when faced with his own weakness, inconstancy, and ungodliness. Let us always pray, “Lord Jesus, be merciful to me a sinner” so that by the grace of God our sad beginnings may move to happy endings, like the son who had a change of heart and did his father’s will. Gradually we will fall less often and rise more quickly.
Twenty-Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Num 11:25-29; James 5:1-6; Mk 9:38-43, 45, 47-48]
Visiting my mother recently, I found myself sitting with her on a sofa watching the Oprah Winfrey Show. As a monk, I was open to having that experience because — she likes Oprah Winfrey, and she’s my mom, and because a monk rarely gets the opportunity to watch Oprah in action. As it turns out, Oprah’s guest on that particular day, just happened to be Fr. Cutie. Fr. Cutie, you may know, is a former Catholic priest from Florida who has drawn national attention by his charismatic and remarkably successful ministry as a priest, and because he was recently caught on video-tape relaxing on a beach in the midst of a two year affair with a woman to whom he is now married—having left the Catholic church and become an Anglican priest.
I thought Fr. Cutie came off rather well in the interview. He is an attractive, and articulate man whose sincerity was evident as he responded to Oprah’s many pointed questions. He spoke of love, and of how the need to love and be loved can rise like a tidal wave in the heart of a man. He spoke frankly and passionately of a particular intense love awakened in him by a gentle and beautiful woman. One would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by his account. In fact, so moving was his story that a person watching the interview, might suggest that, not only is Fr. Cutie still a credible minister of Jesus Christ, but that in the very telling of the story of his affair with a woman as a priest, he was engaging in Christian ministry; initiating thousands of television viewers, into the mystery of love and God who is the source of love. Actually, he seemed to be speaking to his audience on the assumption that by narrating his love affair as a priest, he was engaging an unusual and distinctive form of Christian ministry. Does that assumption make you a little uncomfortable? It made me a little uncomfortable. But in the world we live in today—someone might ask: “Why? Why does that make you uncomfortable? The man is testifying to his sincere love for a woman who loves him. Did he do something wrong? He happened to be a priest—yes, of course, but, as we all know, this sort of thing happens—and besides, who says a priest can’t be in love with a woman anyway? Who made up that rule, and where does that rule get its binding force?” “The man fell in love.” some might say, “What reasonable person can have any argument with him?”
Do Roman Catholics need to feel offended by Fr. Cutie’s “tell all” interview with Oprah Winfrey? Might we not invoke Jesus’ own words proclaimed in today’s gospel: “He who is not against us—is for us. Leave the man alone. No one doing ministry in my name can speak ill of me.”
I did not feel personally offended by anything I heard Fr. Cutie say. What I felt, when we turned off the t.v.—was sadness. I felt sad. Not for Fr. Cutie—who appears to be doing fine. I felt sad for the many people all over the country who watching the Oprah Winfrey show that day, walked away having gained from it little more than a general sort reinforcement of their belief in the power of love of a man for a woman. I felt sad for them, because, during the course of an hour long interview with a man who was for years a Roman Catholic priest, (And Oprah does not often have Catholic priests on her show); having listened to a Catholic priest talk for an hour,about a man’s love for a woman, something viewers were already quite familiar with, they never heard him say anything concerning a mystery about which they know very little: the mystery of celibate love. The beauty, even the possibility of celibate love, was never mentioned. Has Fr. Cutie had a personal experience of celibate love? Did he have the experience, and form ambivalent feelings about it which make it a difficult thing for him to talk about? We don’t know. The subject never came up. It makes me sad that thousands of viewers listening to Fr. Cutie’s story probably walked away and had reinforced many beliefs they already held, (Which will make it easy for them to forget all about Fr. Cutie), and probably never gave a thought to the possibility that that Catholic priest might have told a different story: the story of a priest sitting on the beach with a woman in his arms, who, at a moment, looks into her eyes and says:”Dear lady, I am so very sorry but, I simply cannot conceal from you any longer that—my heart is not in this romance. The truth is, my heart is already given to someone else. Your beauty, your gentleness, the total ravishing mystery that you are awakens in my heart a world of wonder and joy—and yet I just cannot seem to bring myself to take back my heart from the one I gave it to on my ordination day. I am so very sorry dear lady.” The woman, beginning to cry, excuses herself, and the priest, left alone, thinks about the word he just said; that word: “given” which suddenly feels like a two ton weight on his heart, until he feels his heart suddenly break wide open, the word falls in and he is given. The man is—given. And being now freely and totally given to Christ, there is realized in him for the first time the miracle of celibate love that splits the atom of the human heart and sets off a runaway nuclear reaction that transfigures the man and everything around him, expanding his heart to encompass the whole human race; the sky, the sea, and the entire cosmos, from which every shadow is dispelled by a light whose brightness pleases with a pleasure that had no beginning and will never end, this same man, all the while, appearing to passersby as nothing more than a guy sitting alone on the beach.
I don’t know if Fr. Cutie himself experienced this as a priest. Certainly, if you are a man who has experienced this miracle, and you say nothing about it, you are not breaking any law. A priest can know the extraordinary grace of celibate love, say nothing about it, and be accused of no wrongdoing. And yet, Jesus taught, in the case of a man who knows this miracle and says nothing, to the people he was sent to witness to, it had been better for that man if a millstone had been tied round his neck and he had been cast into the sea.
Twenty-Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Ezek. 18: 24-28; Phil. 2: 1-11; Mt. 21: 28-32]
I doubt that anyone would argue with the statement that we are living in a time of rapid change. It is a little less obvious that we are also living in a change of times. Our former Abbot General expressed it as living in “an epoch of change and a change of epochs.” Whatever we might call our contemporary situation and however we might describe it, I think a common element would include a proliferation of choices that is increasing at an ever increasing rate. The advertising media are the most obvious source that stimulates our imaginations with the newest and better this or that and tries to persuade us that we need to get it now; only to quickly tell us that our newest and better is now outdated and we need another newest and better.
I think it would be naive to think that we are not affected by a phenomenon that is so prevalent in our society. As a result we can find ourselves frequently changing our minds about what possessions we need, or how we should spend our time and a number of other decisions. In itself changing our minds is not necessarily a bad thing. A stubborn refusal to change our minds in the face of evidence that our current way of behaving isn’t getting us anywhere is hardly a virtue. The more important consideration is whether our change of mind is giving us a fulfilling direction in life, or is it flip-flopping from one fad to another? Is our change of mind based on principles rather than on whims and popular fashion?
While changing our minds is not in itself repentance, a reflective and thought-out change of mind can contribute to repentance. Repentance is a fundamental change in the direction of our lives. We set out on a new path with a new goal or a new understanding of our present goal, and hence our life has a new direction. Repentance includes a stability of purpose that changing our minds frequently lacks. From a Christian perspective repentance is putting on the mind of Christ. A not unreasonable question is, “Haven’t I already done that? I have accepted my baptismal commitments. I am trying to live a decent life.” True as this may be, a reflection on this morning’s reading from the letter to the Philippians quickly reveals that repentance isn’t something we do once and that takes care of it for all time. We can hope and say with some confidence that we are working at being more humble, compassionate, considerate and obedient to God’s will, but who of us can say that he or she has arrived at the full stature of Christ? Repentance goes deeper and deeper.
I find this a helpful context in which to reflect on the parable of the two sons in this morning’s gospel. Those who are more knowledgeable than I in dream analysis, say that we are all the characters in our dreams. Each one brings out an aspect of our own personality. I have found this a helpful way to reflect on the gospel parables. In this morning’s parable we are both sons, or both daughters; whichever is appropriate. I have said yes to God and then become wrapped up in my own projects and concerns more times than I care to remember. God in his mercy has called me to repentance and given me the opportunity to start back on the path that leads to true happiness and fulfillment. While God is always ready to forgive us and take us back into his company, it would be a mistake to take God’s mercy for granted. The more often we turn away from God and the further we stray from him, the more difficult it becomes to turn around and find our way back. Let us take God’s word to us this morning to heart and let our yes to doing his will come the depths of our hearts. Let us be not only hearers of God’s word, but doers of his word.
Twenty-Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Amos 6:1a, 4-7; 1 Tim 6:11-16; Lk 16:19-31]
This morning, we’re celebrating the feast of St. Michael and all the angels. We all understand and affirm the importance of angels in the story of our salvation, but today’s feast is a celebration, and I wonder if we might be better able to enter into the joy of this celebrate if we use our imaginations for a moment and picture what it might be like for those who are privileged to be actually visited by an angel. What would it be like to actually encounter an angel of God? We honor the angels as exalted beings: Michael, Raphael and Gabriel, being especially exalted are acclaimed “archangels“. What is it like to meet face to face such an exalted spiritual being? Does an angel project a powerful personal presence; a “charisma” like that of a movie star or a powerful political figure? Might meeting an angel be something like the experience of meeting the pope or the president of the United States? Maybe sobut it is interesting to note that in both today’s scripture reading angels are clearly described as servants. In both Old and New Testament accounts, angels are seen not as occupying thrones, but as attendants; spirits attending to and rendering service to the one who sits on the throne. Angels, according to the bible, are ministers, and they are most themselves when they are busily running errands; scuttling back and forth between heaven and earth, mediating between God and us.
Encounters with angels are often called “visitations” and in his treatise, “The Mirror of Charity“, Aelred of Rievaulx describes three kinds of “visitations” people are likely to experience. A “visitation” is a moment in which one has a real encounter with the living God who, through the ministry of an angel, suddenly draws very near to us. If Aelred’s description of a “visitation” reveals anything about what it might be like to be visited by an angel, the first thing you can expect to happen upon meeting an angel is for tears to come to your eyes. It is characteristic of human beings, Aelred says, to weep when encountering an angel of God. Does that mean meeting an angel is a sad or frightening experience? Actually, Aelred writes, an encounter with an angel of God is generally experienced by people in three different ways.
Some people go through life in a kind of sleep; they are oblivious to the truth about themselves and about God. For them, a visitation by an angel will be an experience of being suddenly awakened; maybe rudely and a little roughly awakened. For such a person, a visit from an angel could be a hard experience. Another person more grounded and mature in their faith; a person who has grown in self-knowledge and understanding of God, will experience a divine visitation not as a rude awakening, but as a kind of nourishment; like a meal taken in the course of a long journey. The appearance of the angel will strengthen them to continue the journey. Finally, a person who, besides knowing God, is truly a lover of God,
someone whose heart aches and yearns every day to see God’s face, a divine visitation will be experienced as a blessed reward; something like a prize awarded for running a good race. One kind of visitation awakens the sluggish, a second kind refreshes and strengthens one for the journey, and a third kind is a reward or prize for one who has for a long time been intimate with God.
In light of all this, I wonder if you and I might have actually had an encounter with an angel at some moment in the past and didn’t realize it. Has your life ever been suddenly disrupted by a tragedy or loss of someone or something beloved whose departure made you sit down and weepand when you had wiped your eyes and opened them again, it seemed that your view of everything and everyone around you was transformed? This experience of awakening may have just been a rude shock following a misfortune, but it might have been that what woke you up and opened your eyes to the truth about everything around you was a visitation from an angel of God. Did those days seem dark to you? Maybe you were depressed. Then again, the darkness enfolding you in those days, may have been the shadow of an angel of God walking right beside you, because your time of visitation had arrived. Have you ever found yourself inexplicably overcome at a moment by a profound almost unbelievable feeling of peace, security, and well-being? Maybe you were just having a good day, but you might actually been enjoying the company of an angel, whose presence you never quite consciously acknowledged.
As we continue with our celebration of the Eucharist, let us give thanks to God for the gentle, life giving ministrations of his holy angels, and pray for the grace to recognize them and receive them graciously when, at the moment we least expect, they step into our lives.
Twenty-Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Numbers 11:25-29 James 5:1-6 Mark 9:38-43,45,47-48]
In today’s first reading from the Book of Numbers there is the story about Eldad and Medad. Since my family is here today for our annual reunion, let’s move on to another story.
Fifty years ago I received a letter from a friend of mine congratulating me on having reached my goal. By goal he meant ordination to the priesthood on February 25, 1956. The thought came to mind as I read the letter that I had already reached my goal when I made Solemn Profession as a Cistercian monk. The priesthood came along with that goal. The following paragraphs explain that.
I have a vague memory of being in my parish church one evening. The church was full and everyone had a candle as we slowly moved in sort of a circle. It did impress me very much. I think I was in the sixth grade at the time. As a result I decided to become a Mass server. I had been one for a short time when I was in the second grade but a long cassock caused me to trip one day and I rolled down the altar steps during Mass, which convinced me that my future was in some other field such as football.
The reason I decided to become a Mass server was that it would be a way to carry on the experience I had during the procession. It didn’t have anything to do with the priesthood. I got along very well with Father Werfel, the assistant in our parish, but for some reason being a parish priest never appealed to me. So the years went by and I never did seriously think about being a priest or entering religious life, I assumed that I would get married someday.
When I was in the Navy during the Second World War I did enjoy going to Mass in all the different settings, circumstances, places, and so forth. However I did enjoy doing other things also, for example going to the Officer’s club. One afternoon I drank way too much and when we got back to the ship we found out there was going to be a Mass on the deck. I was delighted. The operation to recover what is present day Indonesia from the Japanese was to begin the next day. It was known as the Dutch East Indies at the time.
An Australian chaplain had turned up to offer Mass for the Australian troops. I wondered if I had drunk too much to go to Communion. He said that under the circumstances the best thing to do was to go to Communion. He only had time to hear a fraction of those who wanted to go to confession, so before the Mass he gave general absolution. It was a memorable Mass. The setting on the deck was beautiful, because of the sea and the islands surrounding the harbor. The island the naval harbor was on was called Morotai. Years later I found out that St. Francis Xavier had been there. The inhabitants of Morotai were considered the most savage of the area. St. Francis was told if he went there he would be killed. He did go and was unharmed.
After the war I went back to Notre Dame for a semester to complete the studies I needed for a degree. Then I was planning to go to graduate school. One possibility was the University of Iowa which I decided to check out. I found out that I would be passing a Trappist monastery near Dubuque and out of curiosity decided to stop for a couple days. I mentioned that to two of my friends at Notre Dame, Joe and John, and they decided to come at the same time.
The first afternoon we were given a tour of the monastery. The next day I decided that the monastery was a strange place and when I ran into John I said: “Let’s get out of here!” I was surprised how strongly he reacted to that and decided it wouldn’t hurt me to stay longer. The next day the life began to look interesting. I decided to stay longer. Finally the thought came to mind: “This is what I am looking for!” I always did have a hard time making up my mind. I still do. The only way I can explain that sudden decision is the grace of God. This was the first time I realized that there was a Religious Order for men that centered completely on the contemplative life. The custom then was for the choir monks to be ordained priests. The Superiors thought it would be best for me to go along with the group and I decided I might as well. They started studying for the priesthood right after first profession and I enjoyed the studies. Thus the priesthood came along with being a monk.
In 1974 Father William Wilson, who was living in a cabin in New Melleray’s woods, was appointed chaplain for Trappistine nuns who are located about 17 miles from New Melleray on the Mississippi river. About a week after he was appointed the thought came to mind that this would be good time to experiment with living in the woods. I talked to Father David Wechter, who was abbot at the time, and got permission to try it for two weeks. Father William was very helpful. The two weeks went well so it seemed good to see if I could get through the winter out there. I discussed it with Father David Wechter. He wasn’t enthused about that because our numbers were decreasing. He said: “Who will take care of the work you are doing?” I suggested that I could take care of the main part of it and go out to the woods the rest of the time. That’s how I turned out to be “a monk who spent four days a week in the woods”.
With regard to the priesthood coming along with being a monk, for me it was very fortunate that it worked out that way, since it enabled me to have four days of complete solitude and still have Mass everyday. You were alone out there, but not alone. The Mass seemed to reach out to people all over the earth who seldom have the opportunity to go to Mass.
The cabin had a large window and as you were offering Mass you could see down the valley. One day as I began to offer Mass there was a chipmunk on the ground outside the window. It was facing the altar and seemed quite attentive, as chipmunks do. It was there for the consecration and I was hoping it would stay for the whole Mass, but then, all of a sudden, it shot off. Once a deer was there for the whole Mass but it just appeared to be sleeping all the time.
So I kept on trying it year by year. After 23 years I had a heart attack which required bypass surgery. That created problems. The cabin had no electricity or running water. Early on it had been suggested that I move closer to the monastery where I could have both. However the solitude of the woods was the great charm of the location. So, I stayed there. During the next three years I wasn’t able to go out in the cold weather but was able to go out the rest of the time. On February 6, 2001 I became chaplain for the Trappistines at Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey. There was need for someone to offer Mass there and it worked in well with my situation. I am very grateful for the four years I was with them. It ended rather dramatically. On the night of April 7, 2005 I fell and hit my head. The chaplain’s house is four-tenths of a mile from the abbey. I called the abbey and after a long pause Mother Gail answered. I said, “I feel well but there is much blood coming out of the place where I hit my head. It appears that I need help.” A short time later two angels came, Mother Gail and Sister Martha, who was the infirmarian. Martha asked, “Do you take an aspirin each day for your heart?” I said, “Yes.” It was the aspirin that was causing the blood to flow so easily. They bandaged my head. I slept well and offered Mass the next morning, April 8, 2005. So ended my chaplaincy with the Trappistines. Since then I have been living happily in the monastery.
Twenty-Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Ez 18:25-29; Phil 2:1-11; Mt 21:29-32]
One son said no, I will not do it. But later he changed his mind and said, yes. Today I want to tell you two stories about people who first said no to God, then changed their minds and said, yes. Both are true stories, but in different ways.
Once upon a time there was a woman in the glens of Ireland who had an only son. He was a proper lad, very fine to look upon. His eyes were bright blue-like the morning sky at sunrise, and when he spoke his voice was like music. Girls watched him smile, and found there was no heart left in them. His equal was not to be found among the isles. All this he was to his mother and much more. He was her dawn, noonday, and evening tide. But then a war came and he fell. She died, too, not her body, but her heart. There was no end to her grieving. At last the Spirit of God, the Comforter, came to her and offered ways to heal such a wound. First he offered the gift of forgetfulness-but she would have none of that. She never wanted to forget the loveliness of her son’s face or the cheerfulness of his heart. Next the Holy Spirit offered her the gift of another child. That would be wonderful, but her heart would still bleed for the one she lost. Finally, the Comforter offered her the extraordinary gift of having her son back. “Yes,” she cried, “I want him back.” The Spirit agreed. Suddenly, the heavens opened and she saw her boy in an ecstasy of happiness, his face was radiant like the sun itself, shining so intensely she could not see what he was seeing-the vision of the Father’s infinite goodness pouring into his Son, and coming back to him with infinite love in the embrace of the Holy Spirit. The body of her boy was arched like a bow pointing upward in the sky, his heart was like an arrow soaring into the midst of God’s own happiness. The arms of God’s love were wrapped around him, cradling her son with a tenderness she had never dreamed of. Then she saw an angel approaching her son to bring the lad back to her. “Wait!” she cried, “Let him be. Now I know it is I who must come to him, not he to me.” The Holy Spirit said to her, “But, your heart is still bleeding.” “Let it bleed,” she replied, “it only bleeds for me. He is where I want him to be, his happiness in your arms is my consolation. I will feel his absence, and I want to miss him. But I do not want to take his happiness from him. Someday I will be with my son in your embrace. I can wait.” That day the woman went outside for the first time since her boy was buried. As she passed along the country road and greeted her neighbors, they said to one another, “Did you see her eyes? They are bright blue, like the morning sky at sunrise, and her voice, it is like music in the air.”
Earth is not our homeland, God is. We have received the upward call in Christ Jesus to be like that Irish lad embraced in an ecstasy of happiness. That is our destiny. It is better to suffer the loss of all things on earth rather than lose the gift of the Holy Spirit who makes us partakers of the divine nature and proclaims in our hearts that “Jesus is Lord.”
Six years ago a terrible tragedy swept through the halls of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. One after another students were killed or wounded. One of the two boys with weapons pointed at a group of students and said in a threatening voice: “Do you believe in Jesus Christ?” There was silence. Then a girl raised her head, looked at him and calmly said, “Yes, I believe.” He shouted, “For WHAT?” and shot her. That moment of silence is especially revealing. It means she had time to reflect and then speak from the Spirit in her heart when she gave witness in the face of death that Jesus is her Lord. Her name was Cassie Bernall. She was an attractive 17 year old high school junior with long blond hair. Two years earlier Cassie abandoned her dabbling in the occult and dedicated her life to Christ. Her brother found a journal in which she wrote a few days before she fell: “Now I have given up everything else. I have found it to be the only way. To really know Christ, and to experience the mighty power that brought Him back to life again, and to find out what it means to suffer and to die with him. So, whatever it takes I will be one who lives in the fresh newness of life of those who are alive from the dead.” The Spirit of God was the mighty power within her, giving her strength to give witness, to suffer and to die so that she could experience the newness of life of those who share the embrace of God.
Earth is not our comforter, the Spirit of God is. Our happiness is the Holy Spirit who lifts us up to see and hear and taste and feel God, experiences that are beyond all our natural powers. The immediate experience of God is even beyond the higher natural powers of angels. They, like us, need the gift of the Holy Spirit to see the face of God.
St. John, remembering the apostles in the upper room, writes, “Jesus breathed his Spirit on them.” From Advent to Christmas, from Lent to Easter, from the upper room on the day of Resurrection to the upper room on the day of Pentecost, all the mysteries of Christ’s life have this one purpose: to give us the Comforter, his Spirit, his happiness, who lifts us up to his Father’s kiss.
(Sunday afternoon the Verbest family gathered together for the anointing of their brother, Daniel Verbest, dying from a brain tumor.)