Martha’s Faith Podcast

When I was at St. Ignatius Retreat House in New York last month, I gave a post-communion reflection on July 29, the feast of St. Martha. Now that my daughter (a/k/a technical adviser) is home from her summer travels, we recorded a version of the talk. Although I had planned for the next podcast I produced to be the next in the Embracing Mary series, I decided Mary wouldn’t mind the interruption so that I could share a little about the faith of St. Martha.

The length of this podcast, titled Martha’s Faith, is 7:45. You can stream it from the icon below or can download it here.


The Parable of the Talents and the Need to Recognize our Giftedness

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the parable of the three servants each entrusted with talents “according to his ability.” Two use the talents in a way that yields more. The third buries the talents and simply returns the same talents to the master when he returns. That servant is scolded on the master’s return for not using the talents even in the most minimal of ways.

We are all given certain gifts from our loving God. Not recognizing our own giftedness is an act of real ingratitude. How many of us, when we receive a beautifully wrapped gift, thoughtfully prepared for us by someone filled with love for us, tosses it in the closet without looking at it, ignoring it and forgetting about it?

Yet, that is exactly what we do if we do not recognize and celebrate our own giftedness. We take the beautiful gift our God has given for us, a gift chosen with such care, a gift uniquely suited to us, and toss it aside without a second glance. We throw it in the closet and forget about the gift and the giver. Ask yourself: What is that like for God?

This parable invites us to recognize our gifts, to own them, and to use them for the greater glory of God.

As I was reflecting on this, what came to mind was a story in the writings of Teresa of Avila. She told of a certain nun – a very talented woman – who resolved to become more humble. She decided that whenever a clever thought occurred to her during the Carmelites’ recreation period, she would remain silent. Teresa immediately disabused the nun of that resolution. Her comment: “it is bad enough to be stupid by nature, without trying to be stupid by grace.” Teresa, too, saw the danger of false humility – of not embracing and using the talents our God has given us.

Herod and John the Baptist

Today’s Gospel is Mark’s account of the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist and it is a reading that has always disturbed me. What disturbs me about it is the strength of the seductiveness of sin, the power of the temptation to turn away from God, that is illustrates.

Herod knew John to be “a righteous and holy man.” Although he was perplexed by much of what John said, “he liked to listen to him.” He clearly was intrigued by John. And so when he is asked by Herodias’ daughter for the head of the Baptist, he is “deeply distressed.” When I pray with this passage, I can feel Herod’s conflict when he hears her request. Nevertheless, he gives the girl what she asks for.

Herod knew full well that killing John was wrong…but he did it anyway. Lust for the girl, the need to look good in front of his guests, pride – all combine into too large a temptation for Herod to avoid the evil act. The story is a good reminder of the power of the forces that tempt people away from the path of light and love.

St. Augustine

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Augustine. It is hard to pick one thing to say about Augustine, who was such an important person in the development of Western Christianity. Pope Benedict has this to say about Augustine:

“There is hardly a saint who has remained so close to us, so understandable, despite the lapse of centuries, as Saint Augustine, for in his writings we encounter all the heights and depths of the human spirit, all the questioning, and seeking and searching that are still ours today.”

Augustine was a prolific writer, but the work of his that was most important to me during the time of my conversion back to Christianity from Buddhism was his Confessions. His humanness and his brokenness are evident, as is his intense sorrow for his sins and his equally intense longing for God. At a time when I was having great difficulty finding my way, I found it very helpful, comforting even.

Interestingly, after writing his Confressions, Augustine asked himself whether it was good that he had done so. He wondered: If I’ve come to regret my sinful past and if I believe God has forgiven me, why not simply put my past behind me. Why bother putting all this bad stuff from my past down on paper? His answer to that question was that it was the recognition of his own sinfulness that had led him to recognize the love of God. It was only when he realized the depth and extent of the presence of sin in his life that he was able to see who God is and how God worked in his life. Thus, for Augustine, recalling his sinfulness was a necessary part of his praise of God.

That seems to me to be a useful perspective for all of us to keep in mind. But it may be especially useful for those people who have difficulty with the idea of Reconciliation and the idea of confessing their sins. What Augustine understood, in the words of theologian Michael Himes, was that confession “is not about how wicked I have been but rather about how good God is. Like all sacraments, reconciliation is not primarily about my action, whether good or bad, but about God’s action.”

Letter vs. Spirit of the Law

I’ve been continuing to reflect on the series of Gospels from Matthew containing Jesus’ indictment of the Pharisees, about which I wrote yesterday. The Pharisees, by all external appearances, follow the law, yet Jesus tells them they are “like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth.”

There is something to the distinction between the letter and the spirit of the law. It is possible to follow the letter of the law to the fullest and yet completely lose the spirit. And sometimes, keeping the spirit of the law may require a little easing of the letter of the law.

What came to my mind when I was reflecting on the Gospel was an incident that occurred, oh, probably six or seven years ago, when my daughter (now 15) was first learning to cook. On this particular morning, she had made pancakes from scratch. It was one of the first times she had made them. (They are now one of her specialities and she makes awesome pancakes of several varieties.) She insisted I try a piece as I was on the way out the door.

Now, I was on the way to morning mass and the “law” says we refrain from eating for an hour before receiving the Eucharist. So I told her as I walked past on the way out the door that I would taste it later, but she was insistent I try it and put a forkful of pancake into my mouth. I got outside, closed the door and started to take the food from my mouth so that I wouldn’t violate the law. But I stopped for a second to consider the situation.

Would it really be to the greater glory of God for me to throw to the ground food carefully prepared by my daughter, which she so wanted me to share, for the sake of avoiding eating something an hour before communion? Did God really prefer that I waste the food rather than eat it? The answer seemed to me then, and still seems to me now, to be no, and so I ate – and enjoyed – the piece of pancake. That seemed to me to show greater respect to the food I was about to receive at Mass, to show greater respect for the Body of Christ, than the alternative.

No question I violated the letter of the law. But I don’t think my action was at all inconsistent with the spirit of reverence for the Eucharist and it is hard for me to believe God saw wrongdoing in my acting as I did.

Practicing What We Preach

For several days, the Gospel for daily mass has contained Jesus’ accusation against the Pharisees as hypocrites. They neglect the weightier things of the law, they preach but do not practice, they perform all their works to be seen and honored, they clean the outside of the cup, but inside are full of plunder and self-indulgence. “Blind fools,” he calls them and he instructs the crowds to not follow their example.

Along those same lines, a passage in Brennan Manning’s, Reflections for Ragamuffins, provides much fruit for self-examination. He writes:

“The Chrisitan commitment is not an abstraction. It is a concrete, visible, courageous, and formidable way of being in the world, forged by daily choices consistent with inner truth. A commitment that is not visible in humble service, suffering discipleship, and creative love is an illusion. Jesus Christ is impatient with illusions, and the world has no interest in abstraction. “Everyone who listens to these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a stupid man who built his house on sand” (Matt. 7:26). If we bypass these words of the Great Rabbi, the spiritual life will be no more than fantasy.”

We could all profitably spend some time at the end of each day asking: Have my actions this day reflected my inner truth? Has my Christian commitment been visible in my words and deeds? Or, in the words of the old bumper sticker: If I were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict me?

Thomas Merton and Affirmation

Thomas Merton has always been a favorite of mine. Yesterday I watched Merton: A Film Biography, a 2004 documentary on Merton’s life. Although much of it contained material with which I was already familiar, it was wonderful to see clips from Merton’s talk in Bangkok just before his death, as well as to listen to the commentary of the likes of the Dalia Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh about their meetings with Merton.

During the latter part of his life, Merton became convinced that other world religions can enlighten Catholics and bring spiritual wisdom. In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton wrote,

“The heresy of individualism: thinking oneself a completely self-sufficient unit and asserting this imaginary “unity” against all others. The affirmation of the self as simply ‘not the other.’ But when you seek to affirm your unity by denying that you have anything to do with anyone else, by negating everyone else in the universe until you come down to you: what is there left to affirm? Even if there were something to affirm, you would have no breath left with which to affirm it.”

“The true way is just the opposite: the more I am able to affirm others, to say ‘yes’ to them in myself, by discovering them in myself and myself in them, the more real I am. I am fully real if my own heart says yes to everyone.

“I will be a better Catholic, not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further.

“So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc. This does not mean syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing. There is much that one cannot ‘affirm’ and ‘accept,’ but first one must say ‘yes’ where one really can.

“If I affirm myself as Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.”

I think Merton makes a very important point here, one that is often ignored. Far too many people seem to want to deny all that is whatever religion they are not, failing to say yes where it is possible to say yes. Would that we were all more willing to “affirm the truth” of the faith of others where we can.

Hearing God’s Word in Every Sound

My friend John just pointed out to me the Alternative Opening Prayer for today’s Mass. The alternative was not used in the Mass I attended this morning and I’m guessing I’m not the only one for whom that was the case. It is much too beautiful a prayer to escape attention, so here it is:

Lord our God,
all truth is from you,
and you alone bring oneness of heart.
Give your people the joy
of hearing your word in every sound
and of longing for your presence more
than for life itself.
May all the attractions of a changing world
serve only to bring us the peace of your kingdom
which the world does not give.
Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Who do You Say I Am?

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” asks Jesus of his disciples in today’s Gospel from Matthew. They give various answers – John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. Then Jesus asks the $64 million question: “But who do you say I am?”

That is a question Jesus puts to each of us. What do you say when Jesus asks you, “Who do you say I am?” It would make a good prayer exercise for today to reflect a bit on who exactly Jesus is for you. Simple question, but one we need to be able to answer for ourselves and for Jesus.

[Update: I just saw that my friend Beth posted her answer to the Gospel question on Journey last night. See here for her reflection.]

“For Me”

One of the things we try to get in touch with during the Third Week of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius is that Jesus died for me. That he didn’t just die for all of us, but for each of us. It is an incredible thing to experience – the realization that if it were only me and no one else, Jesus would have done exactly as he did.

I just came across thisl passage written by Chiara Lubich, founder and president of the Focolare movement, who died earlier this year, which immediately brought the grace of the Third Week of the exercises to mind. She writes,

“Jesus died for us. That means Jesus died for me; God died for me.

“This is humanity’s grandeur: that God died for us. While we may indeed speak of humanism and give it a fully Chrisitan meaning, no one has ever reached such a lofty conclusion. No one has ever had such esteem for humanity as to imagine that God could have loved us to the point of dying for us….Jesus, God, died for me.

“How can we not be happy, not enjoy all of life in him, not offer him our suffering?

“If Jesus died for me, he is always thinking of me, always loving me. And I? I should always be thinking of him, always loving him.”