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Wisdom to Find the Treasure

treasure

Dear Folks,
The Biblical notion of wisdom has a rich history. The idea started in the ancient world. Wisdom was considered a skill, like the ability to play an instrument, work with metal, or navigate a ship. Then they developed the idea that having wisdom was how to live well. They developed wisdom schools, and future leaders studied there. The Israelites would have encountered them in Egypt and Babylon. The Israelites understood that wisdom was an attribute of God and a gift of God. Traditionally, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom and Sirach are classified as wisdom books, and they have some powerful things to say on the subject. Proverbs 9 presents wisdom and folly as two competing dinner invitations. Isaiah 11:2 teaches that wisdom is a gift of the Holy Spirit.
We see that wisdom involves the ability to discern what is valuable and what is worthless. Psalm 4 says,” How long will you love what is futile and seek what is false?” Psalm 24 says “Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord? Who shall stand in his holy place? … The clean of hand and pure of heart whose soul is not set on vain things …” How much human suffering comes from seeing something worthless, even harmful, and thinking it is valuable? Heroin and pornography are extreme examples, but can we think of times we have pursued something we desired strongly, only to find out it was worthless, or worse? Wisdom helps us discern the great treasure, the pearl of great price.
St. Paul talks about how Jesus flips human wisdom upside down with the power of the cross. All truth revolves around the Pascal mystery. “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of
God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the learning of the learned I will set aside [Isaiah 29:14}.” Where is the wise one? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made the wisdom of the world foolish? For since in the wisdom of God the world did not come to know God through wisdom, it was the will of God through the foolishness of the proclamation to save those who have faith. For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than the human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).” We find ourselves by giving ourselves away.
James tells of the connection between love and wisdom, the flipside of the modern proverb, “Sin makes you stupid.” “Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show his works by a good life in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. Wisdom of this kind does not come down from above but is earthy, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice. But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace (James 1:13-18).” See also Philippians 1:9-11 and, of course, 1 Corinthians 13. One last point: Jesus tells us that wisdom can be found in both the new and the old. I’ve met some people who were sure that the current generation is much smarter than all previous generations, and so they have nothing to teach us (That is scary!). There are others that think the current generation has had no good insights, and we just need to get back to the way things used to be. “Do not say: ‘How is it that former times were better than these?’ For it is not out of wisdom that you ask about this (Ecclesiastes 7:10).” Nostalgia can help us forget some of the things that were really wrong back then. Jesus clearly loved the Old Testament (He quoted it so much and built on it so much there is no room for doubt), but He most certainly brought some things that were very new.
We have much to learn, much, much, much.
Blessings,
Fr. Jim

All Sorts of Folks

wheat and tares

Dear Folks,
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” One of the biggest challenges in Christianity is dealing with the inconsistency between the ideals of Jesus and the behavior of fellow Church members, which varies from saintly to horrific. Church history tells us that this has always been the case.
The parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) this Sunday and the parable of the dragnet (Matthew 13:47-50) next Sunday make the same point. The Church has good and bad people in it, and we have to deal with it until the Last Judgment, and then God will separate them. This has a number of consequences.
We’re going to meet people in church who are not very nice. This is not a sign that the church is a fraud or that it is failing, but that it is working the way Jesus said it would.
Dealing with such folks is not preventing us from living the Christian life and being Church, but it is a part of living the Christian life and being Church, and will be until the
end of time.
We don’t get to throw people out for not being good enough. Excommunication is an extreme measure that is medicinal in purpose for the individual (1 Corinthians 5:1-5 and
possibly 2 Corinthians 2:5-11). When people are approaching the sacraments improperly and they will do harm and not good, it can, under the right circumstances, be an act of charity to warn them. Postponing the celebrating of a sacrament until it can be done right can be a necessary, if painful task.
We don’t get to decide who is real and who is not. The best of us do bad things and the worst of us do good things. God knows what is in our hearts. We might decide who we are going trust, and for what. I hope you would trust me to teach the Catholic faith. I hope you would not trust me to do surgery, fix your car, or even cut your hair. We can say that some behaviors are right and some behaviors are wrong. We don’t know where people stand with God. At the end all will be made clear (See 1 Corinthians 4:1-5).
Just because we are in the Church does not automatically make us the good guys. We are not called to fear. We are called to confidence in God’s mercy and grace being able to transform us. We do not get to be complacent or relax our efforts (1 Corinthians 9:27).
There is no escaping the last judgment. We will then know everybody’s stuff and everybody will know our stuff. Does thinking about that make us want to make different decisions?
Part of being a member of the Church is dealing with each other as flawed human beings. It is in dealing with these flaws that we often grow, stretch and become more virtuous. This,
by the way, does not mean we can be lackadaisical in our struggle for virtue, so that we can be training for others. Jesus was quite fierce about that (Matthew 18:6-9; Luke 17:1-3. See
also Romans 3:8).
This means we have the challenge of striving mightily for sainthood with high standards of behavior, while reconciling ourselves to the fact that we are going to be dealing with fellow
Christians who are less than inspiring. This is part of how we give the gift of ourselves, part of how we live the Pascal Mystery. To pull this off we are going to need lots and lots of grace. For this we pray hard.
Blessings,
Fr. Jim

Not So Easy

not so easy

Have you ever had someone tell you how easy your job was? Didn’t you just feel so weary after that?
Is seems common to think that something we’ve never done, something we’ve only seen from the outside, is much easier than it looks.
Those who look at the shortcomings of our American system and want to tear it down, perhaps believing that they can build something better from scratch. What if they are underestimating how hard it is to build things? What if they were geniuses who built something truly amazing? What if people tear down the system, but what they put in place is a thousand times worse because they didn’t realize how hard it to accomplish what they hoped? I will agree when this country was founded, there were shortcomings of how the ideals were put into practice, but the ideals themselves were a continual tug to grow to live up to them better. That was part of the genius.
Some people say that you are a hypocrite if you espouse ideals and don’t live up to them. I say that if we can regularly live up to our ideals, our ideals are not high enough, and we are holding ourselves back. If we are to become what we were meant to be, we need a constant tug from our ideals to pull us forward. I would think a better understanding of hypocrisy is holding ourselves to a lower standard than we hold others, being more attentive to others’ shortcomings than our own, and pretending to be better than we are. That prevents us from improving as we could.
Some things are easy, and one of them is to say we would have done better in their place, when we are not in danger of being in their place. It is easy to say that if we had been in the founding fathers’ positions, we could have done a better job. But if we had had the same experiences, the same education, lived under the same circumstances, might we see things differently? A lot of ideas that we think are obvious and common sense took many centuries to develop.
I had a philosophy teacher who said, “There are many people walking around today feeling so superior to Ptolemy because they know that the earth revolves around the sun and he didn’t, but if you sat them down with a pencil and paper to write out sufficient grounds based on observation why to believe the earth revolves around the sun, they would be lost.” As Isaac Newton famous observed, he saw so far because he stood “on the shoulders of giants.” We have received so much. We may be frustrated by the shortcomings of people in the past, we might remember that some of them moved society forward so that more steps could be taken, and we can see from our current perspective.
I suggest that we are always being called to grow and become better. Feeling morally superior is easy; becoming better is hard. It is my observation that if you really want to do good, you will find that you have to work harder than you thought for longer than you expected to accomplish less than you hoped. The prize belongs to those who do not then give up.
There’s something Teddy Roosevelt said that keeps coming to my mind:
“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”
Theodore Roosevelt
Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910
 

 

Benedict (not the eggs)

St. Benedict

St. Benedict was born about 1500 years ago, just after the fall of the Roman Empire. Bishop Robert Barron recently streamed the story of St. Benedict in his “Pivotal Players” series and calls him “the most pivotal of all the pivotal players.” We remember St. Anthony of the Desert as the one who pioneered desert spirituality.  St. Benedict made monasticism a workable system so that it would be strong enough to hold together civilization when civilization was literally collapsed around them.  He wrote a rule that is still in use today, and that enabled monasteries to be great centers of learning, evangelization and service for centuries to come.

There were some characteristics of the rule that I think made it so successful:

Prayer: most important thing they did and nothing interfered

Work: not just a practical necessity, but a way of glorifying God Colossians 1:23 “Whatever you do, do from the heart, as for the Lord and not for others…”

Hospitality: kept them from becoming self-absorbed

Learning: preserved books, non-Christian and Christian

Stability: temptation always to be looking for something preferable, and whenever things get uncomfortable, run away.

Practical: though dedicated to eternal realities, must not neglect day to day issues.  Though they dedicated themselves to eternal realities, they had to deal with practical problems.

While civilization fell down around them, they kept it going, and enabled human knowledge that would be preserved in the midst of the upheaval. They copied books that would otherwise be lost. They became innovators in agriculture, health care, and other areas. I would recommend “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization” for a fuller description of their contributions.  This would not happen without the work of St. Benedict.

He is often portrayed with a cup that has a demon in it, and a raven with bread in his beak.  This is from two stories about him. Once, monks who didn’t like his discipline put poison in his wine, but when he said the blessing, the cup shattered, and the Holy Spirit made him know what happened. Another time a wicked priest gave him some poisoned bread. He realized it, so he commanded his pet raven to take the bread and put it where no one would find it (sort of an inverse of 1 Kings 17:6). Whether these stories are true or not, they convey that he had to deal, not only with barbarians outside, but dysfunction in the Church inside.

As we look at the challenges we face today, outside and within the Church, I think we can draw some inspiration from St. Benedict.

We celebrate his feast day July 11.

 

 

 

Refusing to Hear

won't hear

Dear Folks,
Now we are past Matthew 10 and are into Matthew 11. Chapter 10 was about being attacked by those who did not want to hear the Gospel. Chapter 11 challenges people unwilling to hear the Gospel. In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of things revealed to the childlike that have been hidden from the learned and the clever. The Dunning-Kruger effect is about people who know the least being the most likely to overestimate how much they know. I think sometimes one of the biggest obstacles to learning is the assumption that we already know. I think that one of the marks of a good education is a frustration with how much we don’t know. There has been much debate about what Jesus means when He speaks of becoming like a little child (See Matthew 18:1-5). It is certainly a call for humility. I would also suggest that children are so often wonderfully curious. I’ve noticed they take in a lot of what is around them (I was warned not to say anything around them that I don’t want to hear repeated). Perhaps one of the things that Jesus calls us to is hungrily soaking up what we can about being disciples.
Next week we will get into Matthew 13. This chapter is packed with parables, and some might be more familiar than others. It is worth reading as a chunk, and then pondering the
point Jesus makes in verses 51 and 52.
As we continue to open up after the lockdown, we shall continue to refine our practices based on experience and based on changing directives as they change.
There has been some discussion of streaming the Mass less often, and by the end of July the thought is to stream perhaps one weekday Mass each week for shut-ins. We are trying to
strike the balance between reaching as many people as possible on the one hand, and avoiding defining down the practice of the faith on the other. Some of you remember when there was no Saturday night Mass. It was added with a view to giving access to those whose work schedule on Sunday did not allow them to get to Mass, and they could at least come to the vigil. However, what wound up happening is many people come on Saturday evening so they can sleep in and lounge around the house in their bathrobe on Sunday. People have actually told me that this is what they do. The Lord’s Day has now become their personal
day. What was supposed to help people connect to the Lord’s Day has now diminished the meaning of the Lord’s Day for many people. We want to avoid doing that again.
Of course, this is 2020, and all plans are subject to change when our situation changes and we learn new things. This is Fourth of July weekend, and a good time to remember that, whatever difficulties our country may be going through, whatever flaws in our practice of the American ideals, we are very blessed to have this country. It is important to remember how many people have
sacrificed so that we could have these blessings, and may that inspire us to use the gifts we have to pass this country on to the next generation in the best possible shape.
Blessings,
Fr. Jim

July 4th and Tug of War

As we celebrate the forming of our nation, I’ve been reflecting over the principles upon which we were founded.  One of the underlying ideas is the limited wisdom and trustworthiness of any one person. This is why we were set up with checks and balances, and freedom to express ourselves, even if our ideas are unpopular.  This allows there to be a free exchange of ideas, and if we are wrong, there are countervoices to help bring us, or perhaps the community, closer to the truth. It is hard work. It requires patience and persistence. It require enough humility to accept that we do not see all truth ourselves, and some people we can’t stand might even have something to teach us.  These virtues are key to the American way of life. This tug of war of ideas can lead to deeper truth and understanding than we can achieve on our own.

In 1924 the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on the lawn of St. Charles’ church. They couldn’t be bothered going through the process of sharing their concerns and debating ideas, seeking to shift thought in their direction. They sought to terrorize and intimidate.  I think of that when I think of mobs destroying statues of the saints and of Jesus. I think of people getting fired, doxed, harassed, and attacked for having opinions that others disapprove of.  This is fundamentally un-American, and fundamentally contrary to what it means to be human.

I watched a documentary on the American Revolution and it mentioned the Boston Massacre.  The British soldiers who shot the American protestors were put on trial. John Adams was their defense attorney.  He, of course, was one of the strongest voices for rebellion, but he believed it was critical that they uphold the principle of due process for the accused.  He didn’t do a half-hearted job, either.

I think of the old quote (attributed to Voltaire, but some say was written by Beatrice Evelyn Hall): “I disapprove of what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.”

How we debate, deliberate, share ideas and handle disagreements will say a lot about how we honor what is best about America.