My Much-Needed Reminder

I’ve been in Omaha visiting family since Friday and have not taken time to write here.  In that context, here is Pope Francis’s Palm Sunday homily.  Relatively short.  Certainly to the point!  It carries a much-needed reminder for me about humility…

At the heart of this celebration, which seems so festive, are the words we heard in the hymn of the Letter to the Philippians: “He humbled himself” (2:8). Jesus’ humiliation.

These words show us God’s way and the way of Christians: it is humility. A way which constantly amazes and disturbs us: we will never get used to a humble God!

Humility is above all God’s way: God humbles himself to walk with his people, to put up with their infidelity. This is clear when we read the Book of Exodus. How humiliating for the Lord to hear all that grumbling, all those complaints against Moses, but ultimately against him, their Father, who brought them out of slavery and was leading them on the journey through the desert to the land of freedom.

This week, Holy Week, which leads us to Easter, we will take this path of Jesus’ own humiliation. Only in this way will this week be “holy” for us too!

We will feel the contempt of the leaders of his people and their attempts to trip him up. We will be there at the betrayal of Judas, one of the Twelve, who will sell him for thirty pieces of silver. We will see the Lord arrested and carried off like a criminal; abandoned by his disciples, dragged before the Sanhedrin, condemned to death, beaten and insulted. We will hear Peter, the “rock” among the disciples, deny him three times. We will hear the shouts of the crowd, egged on by their leaders, who demand that Barabas be freed and Jesus crucified. We will see him mocked by the soldiers, robed in purple and crowned with thorns. And then, as he makes his sorrowful way beneath the cross, we will hear the jeering of the people and their leaders, who scoff at his being King and Son of God.

This is God’s way, the way of humility. It is the way of Jesus; there is no other. And there can be no humility without humiliation.

Following this path to the full, the Son of God took on the “form of a slave” (cf. Phil 2:7). In the end, humility means service. It means making room for God by stripping oneself, “emptying oneself”, as Scripture says (v. 7). This is the greatest humiliation of all.

There is another way, however, opposed to the way of Christ. It is worldliness, the way of the world. The world proposes the way of vanity, pride, success… the other way. The Evil One proposed this way to Jesus too, during his forty days in the desert. But Jesus immediately rejected it. With him, we too can overcome this temptation, not only at significant moments, but in daily life as well.

In this, we are helped and comforted by the example of so many men and women who, in silence and hiddenness, sacrifice themselves daily to serve others: a sick relative, an elderly person living alone, a disabled person…

We think too of the humiliation endured by all those who, for their lives of fidelity to the Gospel, encounter discrimination and pay a personal price. We think too of our brothers and sisters who are persecuted because they are Christians, the martyrs of our own time. They refuse to deny Jesus and they endure insult and injury with dignity. They follow him on his way. We can speak of a “cloud of witnesses” (cf. Heb 12:1).

Let us set about with determination along this same path, with immense love for him, our Lord and Saviour. Love will guide us and give us strength. For where he is, we too shall be (cf. Jn 12:26). Amen.

[Original text: Italian]

© Copyright – Libreria Editrice Vaticana

Turning It Over In Your Palm

Kayla McClurg, on the staff at the Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC, is one of my favorite bloggers.  Her site is aptly named: Inward/Outward, Seeking the Depths.  She never disappoints, but regularly takes me to my depths!  Her post for today, Palm Sunday, is especially poignant and captures the core invitation of this Holy Week:

For the past few years, I have sensed death wanting to be my friend. You know the type. “Let’s hang out more,” she says, “get better acquainted!” But I already have plenty of friends, a busy life, and the truth is, I’m just not that into her. Yet there she is, shuffling along behind me, showing up when I least want her around, throwing her arms around my shoulders to show how close we are, how much a part of my life she already is. “Stop breathing on me!” I want to say, but she doesn’t seem to care. And I have to admit I’m starting to get used to her salty breath, her tattered edges, her constancy. I am almost fond now of her clumsy nearness. What might she tell me if I learned to listen better; what might I see in this crazy quilt of death in life, pieced together in haphazard patterns?

Today is the beginning of the end for Jesus. And the beginning of the beginning. Do you see the wholeness of his life even as death closes in? The fragments of his final week create a story that is dangerously familiar. Read it slowly this year. Walk alongside the other disciples, feel their confusion and fear, hear Jesus confront the powers, offer the wisdom of silence, give it all and then give some more, be abandoned and wait to be found. Pick up a fragment each day or two. Turn it over and over in your palm. Ask it for a blessing

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You may read McClurg’s entire post [here]. You will also be able to follow links to her site in case you’d care to sign up for her daily and/or Sunday postings.

Our Bi-Polar Problem

Today, nine months prior to Christmas, we pause to mark the occasion of the angel’s Annunciation to Mary.  There is no better justification than to emphasize that Mary’s child is fully human!  Whatever other theological assertions might be made, we profess that Jesus was brought to birth through a very human pregnancy.

Our challenge on a day like this is to be careful our faith is really not more Greek than Christian.  Ancient philosophers like Plato did much to lay the foundation for western civilization.  It also polluted our faith with a philosophical “dualism” — body/soul, human/divine, physical/spiritual — that plagues believes ever since.

It’s as if a very strong disposition to bi-polar disease was spliced into our Christian DNA.  It’s too easy to look at Mary’s child and say, “But he’s God!”  Today we are reminded that Jesus is the child of a thoroughly human mother.  We are  reminded that Jesus came to birth through a normal, natural, nine-month pregnancy like every other child.

Today’s somewhat dissonant reminder of Jesus’s origins serves as a much-needed corrective as we transition into Holy Week.  It is too easy to look at Jesus in his agony, arrest, trial, abandonment, crucifixion and dismiss his sacrifice — “But he’s God!”  We do him the ultimate disservice (as well as ourselves) if we fail to say in the same voice, “And he is fully human!”

How else are we to make sense of Jesus’s passionate admonition, the standard he wants us to keep in mind for making every week holy and living every day as if it were our last:

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:37-40)

Seems Jesus accepts no distinction between body/soul, human/divine, physical/spiritual.  Mary made no distinction. Neither should we!

 

Trampling Out the Vintage

In the bright morning sunlight of March 24 1980, a car stopped outside the Church of the Divine Providence in San Salvador. A lone gunman stepped out, unhurried. Resting his rifle on the car door, he aimed carefully down the long aisle to where El Salvador’s archbishop, Oscar Arnulfo Romero, was saying mass. A single shot rang out. Romero staggered and fell. The blood pumped from his heart, soaking the scattered hosts.

Romero’s murder was to become one of the most notorious unsolved crimes of the cold war. The motive was clear. He was the most outspoken voice against the death squad slaughter gathering steam in the US backyard.

The US vowed to make punishment of the archbishop’s killers a priority. It could hardly do otherwise as President Reagan launched the largest US war effort since Vietnam to defeat the rebels. He needed support in Washington, which meant showing that crimes like shooting archbishops and nuns would not be tolerated.

But US promises to bring justice came to nothing. With no trigger-man, gun or witnesses, officials claimed lack of evidence. The fall-guy for the killing, Major Roberto D’Aubuisson went on to become one of El Salvador’s most successful politicians.

Irrefutable evidence now suggests that Washington not only knew far more about the killing than it admitted – but also did nothing to investigate for fear of jeopardising our war effort. Vital evidence was ignored. Key witnesses, including the most likely gunman, were killed by the would-be investigators.

But as Americans understand deep in our bones and express when we sing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”,

Mine eyes have seen the glory
of the coming of the lord,
He is trampling out the vintage
where the grapes of wrath are stored,
He hath loosed his fateful lightning
of His terrible swift sword,
His truth is marching on
Glory! Glory ! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah
Glory! Glory ! Hallelujah! His truth is marching on.

Justice may be excruciatingly slow rather than a “terrible swift sword.” But, justice will be done! This very week, a Florida judge has paved the way for the deportation of a former top Salvadoran general accused of overseeing widespread torture and murder, including the notorious killing of several Americans during the country’s civil war.

Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova served as El Savador’s defense minister from 1983 to 1989. Prior to occupying the nation’s top military position, Vides was the commander of El Salvador’s infamous national guard. He has been living comfortably in Florida for the past twenty years.

While serving as its commander in 1980, the national guard murdered four American chruchwomen working in the country at the time. Americans Dorothy Kazel, Maura Clarke, Ita Ford and Jean Donovan — three religious sisters and a lay missionary — were gunned down on December 2, 1980.

The decision this week by the Florida judge marks the first time a US court has determined a senior foreign military official could be deported on human rights violations since the passage of a 2004 law aimed at barring such violators from seeking refuge in the United States.

Glory! Glory ! Hallelujah! His truth is marching on.

Having been vetted as a “martyr for the faith” by the universal church, Archbishop Oscar Romero will be beatified by the Catholic Church during a public celebration held in the central plaza of San Salvador on May 23, 2015.

Glory! Glory ! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah
Glory! Glory ! Hallelujah! His truth is marching on. 

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The Morman Tabernacle Choir offers what is arguably the most moving rendition of The Battle Hymn of the Rebublic [here]

I am indebted to British journalist Tom Gibb writing in
The Guardian, Wednesday 22 March 2000 for the introduction to this post and facts about Romero’s death.  You may read his complete article [here].

A Place to Start

My Dad was active with the St Vincent de Paul Society when I was a kid. He never said much about the folks who were struggling with the basics of life. Perhaps he understood this to be ordinary, common.  But I recall being both proud and intrigued by his visits to families who needed furniture or help paying their bills.

My brother, Jerry was also very involved with the Society’s mission of direct service with the materially poor. So much so, the St. Vincent de Paul Society was one of three organizations his family proposed to receive memorials in his memory when he died.

The most I can claim is that my charity of choice to receive my old clothes (the term is “gently used”) or household items (in working order, please) is the St Vincent de Paul Stores. Perhaps the lesson taught by my Dad’s quiet service and my big brother’s example is simply this: our human dignity is enhanced when we protect the human dignity of others, especially those most at risk.

Susan Stabile shared marvelous reflections about Vincent at the City House retreat on Saturday. On the most basic level, she clarified for me that he started out as a pretty ordinary sixteenth century Frenchman. From all Susan offered, a quote from Vincent reverberates as the focus for my Lenten self-reflection this week:

There are many, who, when outwardly recollected and interiorly filled with lofty thoughts of God, stop there; and when it comes to the point and they find themselves in a position to act, they stop short. Their over-excited imaginations flatter them; they rest content with sweet conversations they have with God in prayer; they even talk about these like angels; but apart from that, when it is a matter of working for God, of suffering, of self-mortification, of instructing the poor, of going out looking for lost sheep, liking it when something is lacking, accepting illness or some other disfavor, alas! then there is no one left, they lack the courage. No, no, we must not deceive ourselves.

Okay, I stand indicted. I am like the one admonished by the black Baptist pastor who warned, “Sometimes we are so heavenly minded we are no earthly good.”

Today, I take consolation and encouragement in something from my much more familiar Ignatian tradition: In God’s eyes, the desire for the desire is sufficient as a starting point.

Lightning Rods

A quick quiz…

Name a religious symbol.

If you are Christian, I’d bet nine out of ten would say, “The cross.”

What if you are Jewish? Star of David, perhaps?

Muslim… the Crescent Moon?

How would you respond if I said, lightning rod!?!

Yesterday, Janice Anderson proposed the lightning rod as a good symbol for her “doorbell ministry” at the Basilica of St Mary as well as her work with City House. The Basilica is a large, popular urban parish in Minneapolis where she has been on the staff since 1994.

Anderson was a presenter yesterday at a retreat for people associated with City House, a ministry of “active listening” with people on the margins — including those experiencing poverty, addiction, imprisonment or being homeless.

Janice chairs the City House board. She knows of what she speaks when she proposes the lightning rod as an apt Christian symbol.  Perhaps its an apt symbol for people of all faiths!

First, she readily admits what makes her “bristle” when encountering people who have every reason in the world to lead off with a burst of anger. Here’s my paraphrase of what I heard in her story:

Presuming I am the “more privileged” in such a dialogue — and I generally am — is the other judging me?  Might their judgement be accurate and fair?

Fear quickly surfaces when I feel afraid for my safety, imagined or otherwise.

Pride threatens to rob me of a true human encounter if I fail to enter into dialogue with respect for the other’s equal human dignity.

It is so easy to remain hamstrung by my own self-image as “good” if not “beter.”

Despite the fact it is generally an illusion, I typically hold tight to my need to be “in control” of whatever happens.

You may recall or imagine encounters of your own.  Add or subtract from this list of what makes you “bristle.” I suspect responses are as numerous and particular as the people involved.

Did you know that a lightning rod does not attract the lightning? I thought it did. Rather, it just stands there as lightning randomly dances across the sky. If it happens to strike, the rod simply takes in the charge and enables the surge of energy to pass into the ground.

Like doorbell ministry and accompaniment at City House, isn’t that what we are all called to do when we encounter people who hold a grudge and are angry — whether justifiable or not?  Don’t we find ourselves in places where we are called to stand in the place of God absorbing the charge of others, grounding their anger and letting pass an aggressive first-strike?

And here is a cautious reminder — we are to be lightning rods, not pin cushions!  There’s a big difference.  Jesus was one but never the other!

As we Christians move more intimately toward Holy Week we would do well be attentive to how Jesus absorbs the surges of anger directed at him, stands his ground as aggression passes through, letting first-strikes land, putting an end to the destruction that would otherwise occur.

Perhaps, this year, it is time to look beyond the cross if it has become overly familiar and time-worn of much potency.  Attentiveness to Christ as lightning rod is probably more than enough!
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You may learn more about City House at www.city-house.org — financial support is much-needed and always appreciated.

Being Earthly Good

“Y’know, many of us are so heavenly minded we are no earthly good.”  That line, attributed to an old black Baptist pastor, always gets a laugh.  It seems to prove a fundamental principle of good humor — it’s ultimately grounded in fact.  We chuckle because we knowingly recognize its truth.

Those who work Twelve Step programs know how challenging it can be to “walk our talk.”  I didn’t need Jungian analysis or the Enneagram — though both are helpful — to tell me about my propensity to polish my carefully crafted public persona!

When confronted with someone hell-bent on telling others what God expects of us, I have quietly come to wonder: “What is so out of control in their lives that they feel the need to control everyone else?”  The will to power is in all of us and it is strong!

Yes, this is the direction my personal Examination of Conscience needs to go this Lenten season.  My will to control is strong, hopefully not insatiable.  I can too easily resort to my years of theological education and “spiritual practice” to stay safe in the realm of ideas rather than walk-my-talk.  Being articulate can quickly slip into a weapon wielding superiority and arrogance rather than a tool to liberate and empower others.

As our chuckle in response to the black Baptist pastor’s admonition attests to its truth, so we knowingly recognize ourselves in Jesus’ story about the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14).  In our social interactions, as well as our prayer, we find ourselves easily thanking God we “are not like other men.”

Thomas Merton masterfully cuts through such charade! Clearly asceticism and prayer — rightly understood and rightly applied — are means toward spiritual maturation and personal growth.  But, here is what we don’t want to accept, the roadblock we must eventually traverse… Merton suggests these practices — unfortunately and almost inevitably — will get subsumed into a quest for our own aggrandizement.  Our self-centeredness does not give-up easily or without quite a fight!

There is plenty in our pop culture and the self-help section of bookstores to feed our unbridled ego-ism and deceive us into thinking our happiness is found in “personal fulfillment”.  Merton admonishes his fellow monks as well as the rest of us who feel a tug toward spiritual “solitude” or “would be perfect.” He warns us how easily it is to fool ourselves: “We burn with self-admiration and think, ‘It is the fire of the love of God’.”

A fool-proof litmus test for whether my spiritually is fatally “inverted” in pursuit of my own “perfection” is to ask whether I am actually in search of the consolations of God or seeking the God of consolation.  Are others better off because of my “heavenly minded” machinations?

Thankfully, there is a surefire solution.  Failure!  What saves us is finally, even if begrudgingly, the self-acceptance that we are not our own savior, we are ultimately powerless, we cannot make ourselves perfect or even “worthy.”

What saves us, finally, is love… nothing other than the merciful love of God!  How hard it is for us to accept this!  Fellow Trappist Bernardo Bonowitz writes: “This piercing intuition leads Merton to say, in a beautiful re-phrasing of 1 John 4:10, ‘The root of Christian love is not the will to love, but the faith that one is loved.  That one is loved by God.  The faith that one is loved by God, although unworthy, or rather, irrespective of one’s worth’.”

With that grace, even quickening in our awareness, we can embark on loving others as ourselves — loving in a way that is of some earthly good.

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This reflection is largely inspired by and based upon Reaping Where Merton has Sown: A Retreat for the Merton Centenary by Bernardo Bonowitz, OCSO published in Cistercian Studies Quarterly 50.1 (2015), p. 56.