It has been said that the task of a prophet is “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the
comfortable.” Reading the book of the prophet Isaiah, we see he can start with some fierce
“get your act together” talk, and then switches. Starting around chapter 40, he is talking to a
people in exile who are beaten down and discouraged and telling them wonderful things about
the tender love of God. Isaiah has some of the most beautiful and moving language in the
Bible about the tender love of God, and much of the imagery will be picked up in the New
God loves us very much, and in that love calls us to be the best we can be, what we were
created to be, and sometimes that means we need to hear things that are hard to hear.
Some people are alienated from the Church because they received hard sayings when they
needed comfort, and they were beaten down and fell into despair. We can try hard to avoid
that, but it is going to happen sometime.
There are others who are mad at the Church because they needed to hear something hard but
believed they should only receive comfort. Jesus was not shy about saying fierce things when
it was appropriate (see Matthew 5:29-30; Matthew 23; Matthew 25:41-45, John 6, etc.).
Some have drifted away from the Church because they have only received happy messages
and have never been challenged (how long would you keep going to a gym that had
Styrofoam weights that took no effort to lift? It would be more comfortable but wouldn’t
accomplish anything worthwhile). Eventually people decide they have better things to do
with their time.
A pivotal question for all of us, then, would be: How ready are we to hear and respond to hard
sayings? This question is trickier than it sounds.
Some people want more “fire and brimstone,” but are quite sure that it should all be directed
to other people. Some people spend a lot of time talking about what terrible people they are,
but if you point out a specific behavior that perhaps they should examine and change, they get
M. Scott Peck in his book “The Road Less Traveled” talked about some people who were
neurotic and believed that everything was their fault, and some people with a character
disorder who believed that nothing was their fault. There will always be people who tell us
we are wrong, and there will always be people who tell us we are right. If we are too afraid to
stand by our beliefs and decisions we will be paralyzed, and if we are too certain we are right,
we will never learn anything new. Discernment and balance is needed. If, when we were
younger, we received harsh and unproductive criticism, we will find it extremely painful to
learn that we are wrong, and the temptation will be strong to rationalize our position and reject
any negative feedback. If learning we are wrong is not an occasion for great agony, but
opportunity to learn and grow, we can be much more open. Jesus was very patient and gentle
with those who were willing to look at themselves honestly and change their ways, no matter
how bad their sins had been. His anger was for those who were sure they didn’t need to
change, but only other people.
How is God calling us to learn from our current situation? How is God calling us to respond?
Dear Folks,We have all been told that life is not fair. This phrase has been used in various ways. Some say it to say they don’t care that your rights and your dignity are getting violated. It can alsobe an acceptance of the complexity of life. There are many factors that affect our lives that we did not choose, and it seems that sometimes we get handed the dirty end of the stick. Other people seem to have it easier, and we see people giving them slack like they don’t seem to give us. Ever had that feeling?Our Gospel today (Matthew 20:1-16a) deals with the issue of envy, and people who seem to be handed a better deal. This is a common problem in life, and in the early Christian community there was the issue of pagans who became Christian. Some of the Jewish Christians were perhaps thinking, “We have been doing the hard work of trying to follow God’s commandments for generations while these people have been worshipping false gods and practicing drunken, perverted debauchery all this time, and now in the Church they are equal to us? What gives?” You know how we human beings get. St. Paul was dealing with that question in Romans, and he said, “But who indeed are you, ahuman being to talk back to God? Will what is made say to its maker, ‘Why have you created me so?’ Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make out of the samelump one vessel for a noble purpose and another for an ignoble one (Romans 9:20-21)?” St. Paul is remembering the text “Yet, Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you ourpotter: we are all the work of your hand (Isaiah 64:7).”
But how we perceive things doesn’t give the whole picture. I think life is like running an obstacle course with a backpack. We can feel how heavy our own backpack is, but we don’tknow how heavy everyone else’s is. We can perhaps make an educated guess by how they look, but we might be horribly wrong. At the end of the course we get to see how heavyeveryone’s backpack is, and there could be some surprises. We might find out that some people we thought weren’t trying very hard were actually carrying a much heavier load, andwere actually working harder than we were, even though they did not get as far as fast. Perhaps some people we envied for their situation were carrying a much heavier load thanwe thought. We might have thought that ours was one of the heaviest but find out that many had heavier. On the other hand, we might find that ours was heavier than a great manypeople’s, and we accomplished greater things than we thought.We know that sometimes it is a journey to accept that, and that can mean asking the very questions of God why He is doing what seems so wrong. Intellectually, we know He isright (always), but parts of our minds have not yet accepted that. We turn to the great school of prayer, the Psalms. We see “I will say to God, my rock: ‘Why do you forget me? Why must I go about mourning with the enemy oppressing me?’(Psalm 42:10).”Of course, the journey is to go from there to recognizing and rejoicing in God’s wisdom andprovidence. I suggest a meditation on Psalm 73 to follow that journey.The goal is to move more and more to embrace the situation we are given, and from here to do what we can to make things better, to be as faithful to God’s call as possible. The morewe are focused on that, the less and less we will worry about how our situation compares with others’ situations. That will save us time and energy. Growing in faith means realizing more and more that God knows what He is doing.Blessings,Fr. Jim
This is a call “Into the Breach.”
This is a call to all Catholic men. Our families need you. Our Church needs you. Our country needs you. This is a call to accept and exercise our manhood in the fullest and best sense. This is a call to the rising up of men for all that is dear to us, for this is a time of crisis.
The phrase “into the breach” is from Shakespeare, but first I want to mention a very important man who “stood in the breach” and saved a nation.
“They forgot the God who was their savior, who had done such great things in Egypt, such wonders in the land of Ham, such awesome deeds at the Red Sea. For this he said he would destroy them, but Moses, the man he had chosen, stood in the breach before him, to turn back his anger from destruction (Psalm 106:21-23).” See Exodus 32:11-14
And now, Shakespeare:
“King Henry: Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead. In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility; but when the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate the action of the tiger; stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood…” Henry the Fifth Act 3, scene 1.
This is a call to battle, and we are being called to battle, but we must understand we are not now talking about guns or bombs.
“For, although we are in the flesh, we do not battle according to the flesh, for the weapons of our battle are not of flesh bet are enormously powerful, capable of destroying fortresses. We destroy arguments and every pretension raising itself against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive in obedience to Christ… (2Corinthian 10:3-6).”
“Finally, draw your strength from the Lord and from his mighty power. Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens. Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything to hold your ground. So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Ephesians 6:10-17).”
These are calls to battle, but not with physical weapons. There might be times we would have to use physical force to defend against unjust aggressors, but that is not how the big battle will be won. These short videos are about what it means to be a Catholic man, the kind of man that our loved ones need to go into the breach.
I challenge you to watch these, think about them. Think of one new thought they made you think. If you can, think of one new action they inspire you to do. Now share that with five other men?
Will you accept that challenge?
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.
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
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
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.