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Yesterday, Fr. Warren Sazama, pastor of St. Thomas More Church in St. Paul, preached about original sin.  Taking his cue from the line in yesterday’s Gospel where John the Baptist instructs his disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” Fr. Warren spoke about the evil we observe in the world as well as our capacity to participate in that evil.  Indeed, the temptation to make choices contrary to the good can be quite strong at times.

Today the United States observes Martin Luther King, Jr. day that in the words of Coretta Scott King “celebrates the life and legacy of a man who brought hope and healing to America” and that commemorates “the timeless values he taught us through his example — the values of courage, truth, justice, compassion, dignity, humility and service” and of : “universal, unconditional love, forgiveness and nonviolence.”

Like Fr. Warren, King reminded us that each of us possesses both evil as well as good.  We like to think that we are the good guys and that evil is out there somewhere.  Other folks are bad guys but they are not us.  That creates a nice binary that is easy for us to accept; we can line up some people on one side of the line and put others on the other side – and, although we might not say it out loud this way, feel justified in loving the one side more than the other.

In his Loving Your Enemies sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1957, King preached

Within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. When we come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals. The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation who hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every person and see deep down within what religion calls “the image of God,” you begin to love in spite of. No matter what the person does, you see God’s image there.

We have the capacity for evil, yet we are created in God’s image.  We need to recognize that tendency in ourselves, and not think we are somehow removed from the sin of the world. Equally importantly, we need to recognize that those we label the bad guys – those whose capacity for evil is sometimes easier to see –  also have the capacity for good.  Our challenge is in seeing the good in them, for they too are created in God’s image.

Last night we saw Silence, Martin Scorsese’s new film adaptation of the novel by that name written by Shinsaku Endo, a film I have been anxious to see since I read the book two years ago.  (My post about the book is here.)

Given my reaction to the book and what I have read of the experience of the actors in making it (see, e.g., here), I really wanted to love the film, but I didn’t.

I am glad the film was made.  There are few enough films that seriously explore questions of faith and of what it means to live a life devoted to God (in Christian terms, to Christ).  So I am happy to see an addition to that genre and had been anxious to see what Scorsese would do with it, as it seemed like such a labor of love for him.

It is not surprising to me that the film is not doing well in the box office.  There is the initial limiting issue that I’m not sure who, beyond those  (like me) who want to see it because they read the book and those who are interested in efforts to Christianize Asia or in evangelization more generally, will be drawn to choose this over some other movie.  But the problem for many moviegoers is that there is a lot of talk and very little action – and the action that is in the film is very repetitive (as in, how many different ways can you torture someone).

But, while I don’t have a problem with movies with a lot of talk (I actually tend to quite like them), this one did not move me as I had expected it would.  Perhaps part of it was Andrew Garfield in the role of protagonist, who I did not find compelling.  (I found myself wondering if I would have found the film more moving had the roles of the two Jesuits who set off for Japan been reversed and Adam Driver had played the main role.)  Perhaps it is that the movie is too long, which may have contributed to the fact that it is not uniformly engaging.

I suspect it is more that there is only so much of a character’s internal monologue (or third person novel narrator account of that) that can be captured in a film through narrated letters and allowing the audience to hear a character’s thoughts. That is true primarily of Garfield’s character Rodrigues, but is also true to a lesser extent of the priest Ferreira (played by Liam Neeson).  That makes the film a less than fully effective way to capture the internal conflict of either character.

It is true that the film succeeds in raising for consideration that same questions the book does, first and foremost: What does it mean to serve Christ? (Early on we hear Ignatius’ colloquy questions from Week One of his Spiritual Exercises: What have I done for Christ, What am I doing for Christ, What will I do for Christ?  And there is no question the desire to serve Christ is what motivates Rodrigues.)  And what does it mean to apostatize?  But I don’t think it raises those questions as well or effectively as the book does.

I think Endo’s work is one deserving of attention, but my bottom line is: If you really want to seriously reflect on the questions Silence raises, read the book if you have not done so, rather than going to see the movie.

And I don’t mean to dissuade folks who have read the book from seeing the film. My sense is that there have been mixed reactions to it and I would love to hear from folks who liked it more than I did.

Today’s Gospel is St. Mark’s account of Jesus’ healing of a paralytic.  It is how the paralytic got before Jesus that most touches me in this passage.

Jesus, having returned to Capernaum, is preaching in a room filled with people. Mark recounts that so many were gathered to listen to Jesus that there was “no longer room for them, not even around the door.”

Upon this scene come four men, determined to bring their paralytic friend to Jesus to be healed. But they can’t get near him because of the crowds. I can imagine them trying to fight their way through the crowds to get in the door.  At some point they must have realized the futility of their effort.  I can only imagine their frustration and disappointment.

The normal response would have been to give up.  To tell their paralyzed friend they gave it their best shot, but that it was time to go home.  But not these four men: Realizing the impossibility of gaining entrance the usual way, the climb to the roof (which could not have been easy while carrying a mat with a paralytic on it), break open the roof of the building and lower their friend in through the opening in the roof in order to reach Jesus.

Mark tells us that “When Jesus saw their faith,” he healed the paralytic.  And surely, the men had incredibly strong faith to do what they did.

But they also had tremendous love.  For absent that they surely would not have undertaken what seems like a crazy thing to do.

We often say to people, “Call me if you need anything.”  But do we always mean it?  Is our love for others so great that we will do, not only the easy things, but the things that require way more than the normal effort?

The four men in today’s Gospel are a model of faith, to be sure, but they are also a model of great love.

Walking a Labyrinth

This J-term I am teaching an undergraduate honors seminar in Contemplative Practices at the University of St. Thomas.  We are exploring a variety of practices from a number of different faith traditions.

Today, our focus was on contemplative practices involving movement, including various forms of walking meditations, yoga, and dance.  Since the course includes a significant experiential component, I decided that I wanted to give the students the opportunity to walk labyrinth.

The labyrinth is an ancient tool for prayer and meditation; the earliest labyrinths date back about 4000 years and they have been used in any number of faith traditions.  The labyrinth has a single path, that begins at the periphery and leads to a central space, such that the way out follows the same path as the way in.

Although there are some outdoor labyrinths in the Twin Cities, winter is not the best time to be walking them, so I rented this labyrinth from Wisdom Ways.

labyrinth

It took the students various lengths of time to walk the labyrinth, after which they took some time to journal before we talked about their experience.

For me, and clearly for some of the students, walking the labyrinth can be a very powerful experience.  Whether it is peace, some clarity around a question for decision, some answer to a problem, or something else, something always happens when walking the labyrinth.

If it is not a contemplative form you have experienced, I encourage you to find one in your area and take some time to walk it.

Immigration Sunday

Since 2009, the Catholic bishops of Minnesota have designated a Sunday in January, typically the Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, as Immigration Sunday Minnesota.  The Minnesota Catholic Conference explains that “[o]n this day we are reminded that all human beings—regardless of ethnicity, nationality, race, creed or status—are “co-heirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 3:6)  This includes newcomers to our country and state.”  The day is intended as an “opportunity to learn more about the Church’s teaching on immigration and raise awareness about migration and immigration issues in Minnesota and beyond.”

This year, Immigration Sunday in Minnesota serves as a kickoff to National Migration Week, which this year has the theme “Creating a Culture of Encounter.”  In his letter to the people of the Minneapolis and St. Paul Archdiocese, Archbishop Hebda explained that National Migration Week “is intended to be an opportunity for stepping outside of our comfort zones to encounter our brothers and sisters who are different than we are,” explaining that “it  is only through such encounters that we can grow in our ability to see each other as children of God.”

Let me share the balance of his letter in full, as the call to action it contains is as necessary for those outside of our Archdiocese as for those within it.

Immigration Sunday and National Migration Week are also ideal opportunities for informing and examining our conscience in this area, requiring that we take the time to learn what the Church teaches about immigration and its connection to our Catholic understanding of the dignity of each and every person created by God. The Catholic Church has a rich history of both protecting the vulnerable and ensuring that just laws and regulations are followed. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has repeatedly asserted that our immigration system is in need of reform but has been just as adamant in reminding our legislators that the reform must take place without compromising public safety. It is clear that there is no simple solution to this complicated issue, but our bishops have consistently taken the position that a fair and effective reform would be possible if people of goodwill work together honestly and in charity.

In his letter for this year’s World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Pope Francis has reiterated a passage from the Book of Exodus (22:21): “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” while reminding our immigrant brothers and sisters that they need “to cooperate ever more closely with the communities that welcome them, for the good of their own children.”

That same balance is reflected in the helpful resources that the Minnesota Catholic Conference has prepared for parishes, schools and families, including insights drawn from Catholic social teaching, frequently asked questions, and immigration studies and statistics. As we together strive to be better Catholics and better neighbors, I encourage you to prayerfully read through the Minnesota Catholic Conference materials that can be found at: mncatholic.org/advocacyarea/ immigration-sunday-mn/.

May the longstanding principles of our Catholic teaching be the star that guides us to the Christ child so that we, like the magi, might catch a glimpse of His glory and adore Him.

During this Advent and Christmas season, the Office of Spirituality of the University of St. Thomas has been sponsoring reflections written by various members of our university community.  One of my two offerings for the series is the one for today.  I reproduce it here:

Today’s Gospel is the familiar account of the wedding feast at Cana.  This is a scene that is very familiar to us.  It sounds like it was a great big party, one of those events where everyone in town is invited. Lots of guests (including Jesus, his mother and his disciples), lots of food, great music and plenty of wine.

But, at a certain point in the celebration, the wine runs out.  Imagine your own embarrassment if you are the host of a party and the wine runs out.  Of Italian descent, I can well imagine how horrified the host must have been!  But anything we can imagine is insufficient to understand the significance of this.  In Jewish tradition, wine was a visible sign of God’s loving gifts to human beings, as well as a sign of wisdom used in Jewish rites of purification.  And weddings in Palestine were elaborate multi-day events that included processions, speeches, religious blessings, and the wedding banquet feast.  So to run out of wine unexpectedly was a big, big deal.

Mary realizes the situation and tells her son, “They have no more wine.”   At first we wonder what is the point of her statement or whether anything will happen, because Jesus response is so abrupt and dismissive: “Woman, how does his concern of yours involve me?  My hour has not yet come.”  Essentially: leave me alone.  Not my problem.

If the hearer of that response is a person of timidity of uncertainty, that is the end of the story.  Jesus says – this isn’t my problem, and she goes away.  But that is not what happens. Continue Reading »

I am teaching a J-term Aquinas Honors Seminar at the University of St. Thomas this month title Contemplative Practices.  We had our first two classes this week.

After an introductory session on Tuesday, we spent yesterday on practices of stillness and silence.  I introduced practices from several different traditions; some we just talked about, others we practiced.

What especially pleased me was the effect on two of the students who were not looking forward to Thursday’s class session.  Both thought silence would be too hard, said (in one way or the other) that they were not suited to stillness and that more active forms of contemplative practices would be more meaningful toward them. Yet both were open to the practices we engaged in and, at the end of class, one of them observed that she was surprised how natural the practice came and that she could see how this kind of practice could be helpful to her.

So if you are someone who has shied away from contemplative practices of stillness and silence – whether it be Centering Prayer, one or another form of mindfulness or breathing meditation, zen sitting or anything else – why not give it a shot?  You may find yourself responding much more favorably than you expected you might.

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