Category Archives: Faith

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

Trinity: Why Do We Care?

trinity

Dear Folks,
Imagine, if you will, buying a car, but what they delivered was several crates with the
individual components and no instructions about how they fit together. I’m guessing you
would be less than thrilled. In the Great Adventure Bible Series, Jeff Cavins talks about
some people coming out of their religious education having a “heap of Catholicism.” They
know tidbits but have no idea why they matter.
One of the biggest occasions of this is the doctrine of the Trinity. Many people fought to
defend this doctrine for centuries. Basic Catholic religious education teaches this truth, and
we recite it in the creed on Sundays. But how many Catholics can explain why it matters?
How does this affect living the Christian life?
When we say “God is love” we are not just saying that God is loving, but that love is His
essence. The Father is eternally giving Himself in love to the Son, who is eternally
receiving and returning that love to the Father, and that love is so great it is Himself a
person, the Holy Spirit. Without creating anything, God is already the perfect community of
love, and has no need for anything, but love is fruitful, love is creative, so God created us
out of love. This defines for us the fullness of life: to receive love and give ourselves in
love. It also defines love: to give oneself. Jesus said there is no greater love than to give
one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13). In everyday practical terms it is to will the good of
another. The pursuit of holiness is both a personal and communal effort, and following
Jesus involves connecting to the community. To lose oneself in love is to become more
fully oneself.
Christianity is not only the greatest love story that has ever been told, but the only love
story that could ever be told. The Lord Himself, with nothing to gain, paid the ultimate
price for us, and we didn’t deserve it. If Jesus is not God, that that means God sent
someone else to do His dirty work, and then Christianity is just another religion. If Jesus
didn’t really become human, that means He didn’t really pay the ultimate price, but just
pretended to.
Different starting points make everything different. The materialists believe that we are just
a collection of chemical reactions in a temporarily self-sustaining system. Personhood,
consciousness, and love are just byproducts of chemical reactions. Love will then often be
defined as a feeling that can come and go, rather than a decision. That is going to affect
how we view the value of individual lives and how we respond when we are disappointed
by other people. That will affect how we view the concept of life fully lived. If love served
pleasure, it might be seen as a good thing but if one were disappointed too often, it could be
discarded as a value. I read one Hindu thinker that said the Absolute reality was not
personal, and that personhood is a result of a lapse from the Absolute. To achieve perfect
oneness, one needs to lose one’s individuality. Those who believed in many gods
envisioned them fighting amongst each other. In such religions, being good is not necessary
so long as you keep your god happy and your god happens to be winning.
All these truths fit together into the ultimate story, and no doctrine is expendable. Whenever
people teach something contrary, it will always result in something less. No one will ever
come up with a story as good as the one God weaves. The Catholic faith is the greatest gift
we can give. Knowing how it all fits together and why it is so good, so beautiful and so true
is part of being ready to share it with the rest of the world. And the rest of the world needs a
lot of God’s call to love.
Blessings,
Fr. Jim

Living Stones

livingstones

In our Gospel today, Jesus begins His farewell discourse, His last talk to the disciples
before he goes to be crucified. This will take chapters 14-16, and then there will be the
Great Priestly Prayer of chapter 17, in which He consecrates His Church. He starts with
“Do not let your hearts be troubled” and then says something strange. It is so familiar that I
didn’t think until recently how strange it is. When Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there
are many dwelling places…and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again
and take you to myself, so that here I am you also may be (See John 14:1-3).” It leads to the
question, “Prepare how? Does heaven need work? What does He have to prepare?” Of
course, He will be preparing us. There is something else going on. Brant Pitre, in his book,
Jesus the Bridegroom, points out that this is what a bridegroom does. He gets betrothed,
then he goes and prepares a home for them (usually on his father’s estate), and then comes
and takes the bride to live there.
In the Gospel of John, we see John the Baptist introducing Jesus, and he uses two images to
describe Him: the Lamb of God, and the Bridegroom, and there will be subtle references to
these roles throughout the Gospel. John the Evangelist will bring these two together at the
end of the Book of Revelation in the Wedding of the Bride (the Church) and the Lamb.
Between the time when Jesus Ascends into heaven and the time when He comes back to get
us, to bring the relationship to its fullness, we are being prepared. That brings us to our
second reading, where St. Peter talks about us being living stones being built into a spiritual
house. The more familiar image is members of the Church being members of the Body of
Christ (1 Corinthians 12; Romans 12 and Ephesians 4), so we can take this opportunity to
linger over St. Peter’s image. “Come to him, a living stone, rejected by human beings but
chosen and precious in the sight of God, and, like living stones, let yourselves be built into
a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God
through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:4-5).”
In the course of doing church work, I’ve learned that some bricks are stronger and more
durable than others, and if you are unfortunate enough to have a church with low quality
bricks they will crumble relatively easily. I do believe that some stones are stronger than
others, and sandstone is not nearly as durable as granite. If we want our Church to be
durable, the first step is to be stronger stones, and that happens by deepening our
relationship with Christ. Any time we want to make a better world, the first step is always
to fall more deeply in love with Jesus. We can get so focused on things that need to be
done around us that we can forget that part, and we can become like sandstone that takes
itself for granite. We also remember that each stone is a small part of the building, so it is
less about us than about the purpose of the building.
This building is not just to sit there, but “offer spiritual sacrifices” and we are called to be a
“holy priesthood.” It is worth looking at this alongside a text from St. Paul: “I urge you
therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy
and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be
transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God,
what is good and pleasing and perfect (Romans 12:1-2).” According to our baptismal
priesthood we are called to offer sacrifice. Since there is only one sacrifice, the sacrifice of
Jesus on the cross that occurred once in history but whose power is eternal, our sacrifices
must be a participation in that action. This is done in the sacrifice of the Mass, and in the
sacrifice of our lives, as we give ourselves to service.
We see the call to service in the first reading from Acts 6, and call of the first deacons (the
word “deacon” comes from the Greek word for “servant”). This house becomes more of
what it is meant to be when no one in need is neglected, and when everyone’s gifts are fully
brought to service. Sometimes we do this better than others, but it is what we are always
seeking.
Much to do to prepare for the final celebration.
Blessings,
Fr. Jim

Getting Things Sheep Shape

shepherd

Dear Folks,
Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and we have cause to feel sheepish.
In John 10, Jesus tells us He is the good shepherd. This chapter is well worth reading
completely. A good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. Some have pointed to this
text and suggested that priests should not be participating in the lockdown, but facing the
danger. It would be a different thing if we were just putting ourselves in danger, but if we
kept visiting people, we could be unknowingly infecting others. That is the truly dangerous
factor, how long we can be asymptomatic and contagious. There can (and will) be a lot of
conversation about where to draw that line, but it is not simple. Let us reflect on shepherds:
We all know Psalm 23, the great psalm about the Lord our shepherd. Reflecting on that
short text can give us a sense of what Jesus was talking about, what He does for us.
Isaiah 40:11 Tells of the shepherd’s tender care for the sheep as an image of God’s tender
care for His people (just what you would expect from Isaiah): “Like a shepherd he feeds his
flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, leading the ewes with
care.”
Isaiah 56:11; Jeremiah 3:15; 23:4; 50:6 talk about bad leaders of the Israelites who were
like bad shepherds, but the big example of that is in Ezekiel 34. It is worth reading in
entirety. If you only look up one of my references besides John 10, this would be the one to
read. In the Office of Readings (of the Liturgy of the Hours) there is a section in the fall
where we go for days with a chunk of this chapter as the first reading, and a message from
St. Augustine developing the concept further. Neither one pulls any punches. It usually
comes up pretty close to when we have the priests’ conference for the diocese (I think God
did that on purpose). It is a challenge for anyone in a leadership position.
One can also read: Luke 15:1-7 Parable of the lost sheep; John 21:15-19 Mandate to Peter:
if you love me, feed my lambs tend my sheep; Acts 20:25-35: St. Paul talking to the priests
of the church of Ephesus.
The image of the Lord as shepherd goes deep in the scriptures, and it is very apt. In ancient
Israel, shepherds were very common, and everyone was familiar with the concept.
Shepherds lead the sheep to food, water and shelter, and protect them from predators. The
sheep, left to themselves would tend to wander off and get in trouble.
We may pride ourselves on our independence and our common sense, but we need help and
we do tend to wander from what is good for us. In our better moments, we all know this to
be true.
In John 10:10, Jesus says, “A thief comes only to steal and laughter and destroy; I came so
that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” Those who seek to lead us into sin
(and that includes the voice of temptation within us) regularly tell us that to obey God is to
accept a diminished life, and sin will give us a fuller life. This is one of the most horrible
lies in the history of lies, and yet, it is so easy to believe. We tend to wander from the very
things that will make us the happiest. Sin leaves us with a life so much less than what it
could be and in the cruelest of prisons. That is what gives us cause to feel sheepish. Jesus
leads us to the fullest, most abundant life. We will see this image taken up again most
powerfully in Revelation 7:9-15.
Jesus said the sheep know the voice of the Good Shepherd, and that He will lead them and
they will find pasture. We can get to know His voice better by reading the Scriptures, by
spending time in His presence (including time spent with the Blessed Sacrament), and by
seeking His face in those in need.
We need a shepherd. Let us take some time to listen to His voice.
Blessings,
Fr Jim

Know by the Fruits

fruitsof the Spirit

We are coming up on Pentecost, one of the three biggest celebrations of our liturgical year.

We are told there is an inheritance waiting for us in heaven, but for now we have been given the Holy Spirit as a “first installment” (Ephesians 1:13-14; 2 Corinthians 5: 1-5). So what does it mean that we have been given the Holy Spirit?

I want to emphasize that the answer must not be primarily about feelings. I have heard many people who talk about “feeling close to God” as their primary test for their practice of the faith. This is dangerous.  I would suggest our Scribe and Pharisee friends in the Gospels got into trouble when they confused feeling holy with being holy. Daniel Mattson in his book Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay shares a lesson his father taught him: “In the planetarium where he worked, I would often sit next to him as he gave presentations to visiting school children.  My favorite part of every program was the moment when he made the star projector spin speedily, round and round, making it feel as if all of us in the auditorium were spinning. The dome of the planetarium filled our vision, and though we knew we were seated firmly in our chairs, it felt as if we were dizzily careening through space. As the gathered children enjoyed the experience, my father would use the moment to teach them about Nicolas Copernicus’ revolutionary discovery that the earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around, as most men had believed throughout history. ‘Feeling are important,’ he would say, ‘but they don’t always tell us the truth.’”

What should we look for as a sign that the Spirit is working in our lives?  It is always a good thing to start with Jesus, who said, “So by their fruits you will know them (Matthew 7:20; see Luke 6:43-46).”

What are the fruits of the Holy Spirit? St. Paul teaches they are “love, joy peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23, and memorizing that list would not be a bad thing).”  If the Holy Spirit is at work in us and if we are cooperating with that work, we should demonstrate an increase in those qualities.  We all fall short, but we can be headed in the right direction.

However, it would be a grievous error to focus our faith life only on our personal development. I suggest that what Jesus said about fruit and harvesting has more to do with gathering people to Him as He has commanded us to do.  If we read the following texts from that lens I think they will make the most sense: “At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is abundant but the laborer are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest (Matthew 9:36-37).’” “After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others whom he sent ahead of him in pairs to every town and place he intended to visit. He said to them, ‘The harvest in abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest. Go on your way; behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves (Luke 10:1-3).’” We see in John 4:35-36 Jesus talks about seeing the fields ripe for the harvest and that “one sows and another reaps.” In John 15: 1-17 He talks about us being branches on the vine and remaining on Him in order to bear fruit that will remain.

Acts of the Apostles has been called “The Gospel of the Holy Spirit.”  We see the work of the Spirit most memorably in the story of Pentecost in Acts 2. The celebration of Pentecost in the Jewish calendar was the feast of first fruits. That will wait for a future article.

Believing Thomas

believing thomas

We all know the story of Believing Thomas. He didn’t believe until he saw the risen Jesus and touched His wounds.

“Jesus said to him, ‘Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed (John 20:29).’” For years I wondered “Why?” Why is that better?  In days when I was dealing with atheists and wrestling with questions about God’s existence I thought that it would be a lot easier if the risen Jesus would just appear to everyone like He had appeared to Thomas and let is examine His hands and His side. It is certainly not beyond His power.

We see a situation in which John does not see, but believes. He is a model for all of us. “He bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in. When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial clothes there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place. Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed (John 20:5-8).” It was significant that the cloth for the head was not with the others but rolled up in a separate place, because that suggested this was not the work of grave robbers.  The first thought would be the body had been stolen, but what grave robbers would roll up the cloth and put it aside?  It didn’t add up.  That was enough to convince him, and he believed. This is not the first time the Gospel of John suggests people putting the clues together. “The next day, the crowd that remained across the sea saw that there had only been one boat there, and that Jesus had not gone along with his disciples in the boat, but only his disciples had left (John 6:22).  This made people suspect something was up.  We, of course know that Jesus didn’t need a boat, He just walked.

A very interesting book called The Love Dare by Stephen and Alex Kendrick with Lawrence Kimbrough deals with intentionally building love within a marriage.  It had a section that was eye-opening for me.  “A woman deeply longs for her husband to be thoughtful. It is a key to helping her feel loved. When she speaks, a wise man will listen like a detective to discover the unspoken needs and desires her words imply. If, however, she always has to put the pieces together for him, it steals the opportunity for him to demonstrate that he loves her.”  I had always thought that saying, “If you don’t understand I’m not going to explain it to you” was an exercise in gratuitous cruelty, but this makes sense.  God also calls us to be attentive and thoughtful, to put together the pieces, to “connect the dots,” to discover Him and His will for us. This is not, of course, because He needs us to make Him feel loved (He needs nothing from us), but it is a way we become more engaged and give ourselves more deeply, more completely to Him, which is what we need more than anything else.  Of course, unlike a human spouse, God knows our abilities completely and will never fault us for failing to figure out something that is beyond our ability.  If the risen Jesus were to appear to each one of us and do the “stick your finger in the nail marks” thing, we would not have to engage much of our brains.  We are only complete when we are totally His, and this involves more and more of ourselves responding to the call and seeking. We remember, when we are seeking Him, He has already found us.

In a deep friendship, trust develops, and things are believed without being proven, but with good reason.  There comes a point where we decide it is not absolute, but there is enough reason to believe.  One could always say, “I’m not convinced yet; I need to see more.”  If someone doesn’t want to trust you, there will never be enough to convince them. But imagine being able to take a meter and read the level of friendship someone has for us. That would be less work, wouldn’t it?  But perhaps that is exactly the work that we must do to build friendship.

It also means that we have the ability to decide that no one can be trusted and everyone is out for what they can get and will turn on you the minute it is to their advantage. Then, of course, we will avoid being disappointed, but we shut ourselves out of so much.  We don’t get very far without faith.

When people want proof that does not require them engaging, stressing, taking some risk, then there can never be true friendship.  “The Pharisees came forward and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. He sighed from the depth of his spirit and said, ‘Why does this generation seek a sign? Amen, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.’ Then he lift them, got into the boat again, and went off to the other shore (Mark 8:11-13).’”

Although faith is a gift, it is also a choice. “And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil (John 3:29).”

God calls us to give ourselves to Him deeply, fully, and freely.  This means more effort, but it is eternally worth it. So why did Jesus give this special moment to Thomas? God knows what each one of us needs, and knows it better than we do.  He will give us what we need, but not necessarily what we want.