Aspiring to More Than Not Doing Wrong

A recent Commonweal article by Lisa Fullman, associate professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, speaks powerfully to what our goals are as Christians. Although the specific subject of her article is sexual ethics, her discussion of the difference between focusing on the “don’ts” vs. something more affirmative is more broadly applicable. She writes:

The first word in Christian life is not sin, but grace, starting with the grace of being called into being and called into love by God. A focus on grace and how we respond to God’s invitation to love will include serious consideration of sin, but will go much further in the direction of excellence, and will lead us to ponder the heights of what is possible in our lives. We center our lives as Christians on Jesus’ vision of human fulfillment in the reign of God and the love by which we devote ourselves to its realization. The vision calls us forward to help us see what requires work in our current world.

This resonated with me because I think back to my early days in Catholic school. The way the Ten Commandments were presented to us were as a set of a priori rules one had to follow and the message we got was: if you want God to love you, this is how you will behave. Only in recent years have I come to appreciate that living one’s live in accordance with the Ten Commandments is a natural response to a love relationship with God. If one appreciates God’s unconditional love and falls deeply in love with God, certain behaviors naturally flow.

Sin is a reality and we can’t ignore it. But focusing exclusively (or even primarily) on what we are not supposed to do only gets us so far. We need to devote energy to deepening our realization of God’s incredible love for us, a realization that will naturally call forth in us a loving response to “God’s invitation to love.” Only steeped in that love is it possible for us to, not merely to do no harm/evil, but to to live to “the heights of what is possible in our lives.”

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St. Catherine of Siena

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. Catherine of Siena, a mystic about whom I’ve posted before. Catherine had many visions that affected her deeply, many of which are recorded in her Dialogue.

One particular vision was instrumental in how Catherine viewed her vocation. After spending three years in prayerful solitude in a room in her father’s house, she had a vision in which Jesus reminded her of the passage in Matthew 22 where he is asked what is the greatest commandment. We all remember Jesus’ response: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus then told Catherine: “I want you to fulfill both of these commandments. I want you to walk in the way with both your feet. I want you to fly to heaven on two wings.” Jesus assured Catherine that far from her actions in the world taking her away from time with Jesus, they would bring her closer. He told her, “I have no intention whatever of parting you from myself, but rather of making sure to bind you to me all the closer, by the bond of your love for your neighbor.”

And so, as one scholar described, “Catherine was a mystic whose plunge into God plunged her deep into the affairs of society.” She offered her services in a local hospital caring for lepars and victims of the plague, baked bread for the poor of Siena, she served as a mediator between feuding families and helped broker a peace agreement between the city of Florence and the government of the papal states. People flocked to her wherever she went. (It is reported that wherever she went, a dozen priests accompanied her to hear the confessions of those whose faith in God she helped reawaken.) Catherine was truly faithful to the command that Jesus had given her.

Surely Jesus command was meant only for Catherine, but for all of us. For all of us who are Christians, love of God and love of neighbor are bound tightly, two wings of the same bird. We are all asked to fly to heaven on two wings.

(This past fall, my Praying with the Mystics retreat included Catherine. The link to the podcast of the talk I gave on Catherine is here.)

Do Not Hold This Sin Against Them

In today’s first Mass reading from Acts, we hear of the martyrdom of St. Stephen. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen chastises the “stiff-necked people” for their persecution of the prophets and speaks to them of his vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Infuriated, they rush upon Stephen, throw him out of the city and stone him. As they were stoning him, Stephen, mirroring some of Jesus’ last words on the cross, cries out “Lord, Jesus, receive my spirit” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

It is the second of those statements that I always react most strongly to, and I am filled with admiration and awe that at the moment of his death, Stephen expresses concern for the forgiveness by God of those who are executing him. It is an act of love I don’t always live up to. When people commit far less grave sins against me, I confess that my first reaction often has to do with “poor me” and my mind doesn’t always jump so quicly (or at all) to asking God to forgive them their sins.

Each time we recite the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Let us also pray for the grace to forgive as Stephen (and Christ) forgave.

Gazing on the Cross

I’ve commented before about the effect certain lines of Scripture have on me. All I need to do is hear them and something in me releases; I immediately relax into the presence and love of God. During a daily Mass sermon the other day, the priest made a similar observation, pointing out that just looking at the crucifix does something to us; it brings a feeling of peace.

In both cases there is a direct effect, an affective response, that does not depend on any rational or discursive thought. There is an immediacy to the reaction, an immediate awareness of the presence of God beside me. There is no analysis, no working out of anything, indeed, no real thinking at all. There is stimulus (cross, scripture, perhaps some other image, music) and there is response.

I think there may be some things that are universal in their effect, e.g., the effect of the cross on Christians. In other cases, different pieces of scripture, different images, different pieces of music, etc., my cause that sense of immediate release and relaxation into the arms of God. So it is important for each of us to identify those things that are our doorways into an enounter with the divine and that lead us to that sense of peace and overwhelming love. When you identify it for yourself, you might consider sharing it with others – who knows what encounter of another with the divine you may facilitate.

What is it for you?

The Presence of God

I just finished reading a novel by Gioconda Belli, titled Infinity in the Palm of her Hand: A Novel of Adam and Eve. It was a short enough read that I finished it despite not being sure whether I was really enjoying it or not. On the one hand, it is interesting (even if one does not accept a literal interpretation of the creation story) to imagine Adam and Eve as they learn about the world and their place in it after they are expelled from the Garden. On the other, the portrayal of God following the expulsion is one that bears little resemblance to the God of my experience.

What did grab me was a passage very early in the book, where Adam (before the creation of Eve) is trying to catch a glimpse of God (the “Other”). I found the description of his experience of God’s presence to capture beautifully our intuitive sense of God’s presence even when we don’t “see” Him. Belli writes

From time to time [Adam] looked up suddenly, hoping to suprise the Other, whose presence was softer than the wind though similar to it. The intensity of his gaze, however, was unequivocal. He sensed it on his skin, just as he perceived the unchanging, ever-present light that enveloped the Garden and illuminated the sky with its resplendent breath.

After Eve is created, she asks Adam where is the Other and Adam responds, “I don’t know where he is. I know only he is all around.” As conveyed in the book, this truth is one Adam and Even seem to have difficulty holding onto after their expulsion from the Garden. Adam’s early experience, however, captures a truth available to us if we sit in the silence and open ourselves to feel the presence that is softer than the wind and the words constantly whispered in our hearts.

St. Mark

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Mark, the writer of what is thought to be the first Gospel to be written. Mark was a man of few words, and his is the shortest of the four Gospels.

Mark records very few of the spoken words of Jesus, forcing us to focus on Jesus’ actions: calming the storm, walking on the waves, feeding the multitudes, curing the ill and raising the dead. Perhaps because there is less emphasis on words, we find in Mark vivid descriptions, with small details not found in the other two synoptic Gospels.

On the one hand, Mark is quite clear in his emphasis on Jesus as the Son of God and the Messiah. On the other, in the words of Fr. Joseph Mindling,

With an eye for detail not always recorded by the other gospels, Mark shows fascinating aspects of the human side of the Messiah as well: That Jesus liked to eat with his friends, that he used a litte pillow to sleep on in the boat, that he hugged little children and enjoyed being with them, that he did not always hide strong emotions, that he used mud in the performance of a miracle, that he listened carefully to the parents of a little girl who had died, and that he was fearful before he himself died. Individually, many of these observations may not catch our attention, but collectively they deepen our understanding of what it meant for the Son of God to take on our human nature and share our everyday life.

Fully divine, yes. But also fully human. And Mark gives us a vehicle through which to explore that humanity.

Death, and Holding On and Letting Go

An elderly Vincentian priest I knew in New York died in his sleep the other morning. His funeral is this morning. I hadn’t seen Ken for at least six months before his death, nor had I spoken to him in quite a while. But about a week ago, I came into my office at St. Thomas and found a message from him on my answering machine, thanking me for some flowers I had sent him and giving me an update on his condition. I didn’t erase it the day I heard it and now, after his death, I can’t quite bring myself to erase it yet. The message remains, as do a couple of notes he wrote me over the last few months, which sit on a bookshelf in my study at home, forming part of an altar of sorts that contains some notes, pictures, stones and other small items that have some significance for me. I’ve looked at the notes a number of times since I got word of his death (pausing especially at the line in one where he observed that “all of a sudden, the ‘philosopher’ knows he has a body!”). The phone message and the notes are a tangible, physical piece of the person who is gone. (“Piece” isn’t quite right, but I mean something more than remembrance and can’t quite get the right word.)

I’m reminded of the death of a beloved uncle eleven years ago. He spent time in the last years of his life doing wood carvings and I remember how important it was for me after his death to have something he had carved, something I could touch that he had touched. And I remember that it took a long time for my aunt to change the message on her answering machine – his message, his voice. I can’t count how many times I dialed their number in the weeks following his death just so I could hear his voice on the answering machine (crying fresh tears of grief each time I heard it). And time and time again I would pick up one of his carvings and run my hand over it, feeling the connection to him.

The two deaths were very different for me. The Vincentian priest was of an age where death is not surprising when it comes; my uncle, with whom I had a much closer relationship, died at a much younger age (of pancreatic cancer, as did my father). But at whatever age someone who is part of the fabric of our lives dies and whatever is the cause of the death, I think there is something in us that wants to hold on. Maybe it is that hearing their voice, touching what they touched, reading what they wrote, and the like help us for a while as we adjust to their absence and transition to a life without them.

But only for a while. We can hold on for a while, but ultimately have to let go. My aunt ultimately changed the message on her answering machine and I stopped hearing my uncle’s voice when I called to speak to her. Now and then as I pass where they hang on the wall in my study, I run my hand over one of his carvings and smile at a remembrance of some moment between us (like when I called him collect from Thailand to wish him Happy Birthday one year), but I don’t cling to the touch as I once did. I let go, handing him completely over to God. And the time will come over the next few weeks when I will listen to Ken’s phone message from last week one last time and then erase it, not feeling the need to hold onto it. And turn him completely over to God.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.

Sharing the Peace of Christ

I keep coming back to a single line in the homily delivered by my pastor during Mass this past Sunday. In the context of talking about Jesus greeting both the ten disciples to whom he first appeared and then Thomas by saying, “Peace be with you,” he said, “If we don’t share the peace of Christ with others, it doesn’t mean anything.”

When I first heard the line, it struck me as overstatement. If we don’t share Christ’s peace (read: love), it means nothing? Surely it couldn’t be right to say it doesn’t mean anything? Less, sure. But, nothing? Doesn’t it still have to mean something.

But the more I reflected, the more I realized the truth of what he said. It struck me that the line offers a different – and quite abrupt and direct – way of conveying the inherent interrelationship of love of God and love of neighbor. The inseparability of love of God and love of others means there is not just incompleteness (not just something less than perfect) if we don’t share the love or peace we receive from God with others. Rather, we can’t really experience the love and peace of God (and therefore don’t really possess in a real way) unless we are also sharing it with others. It is, from our side, as though it weren’t there.

The line is also a different expression of what we hear in the parable of the talents. We sometimes tend to think of talents in literal terms – either as money (what was given in the Gospel to the three servants) or as a talent in the sense of gift – something tangible we are meant to use. But the parable really expresses the same notion that if we don’t share God’s love and peace with others, we can’t hold onto it. We might as well not have it at all.

A week or so ago, my pastor joked about whether anyone remembered anything from the homilies they hear each week. I’m not going to say I always remember everything I hear preached, but in this case, this one sentence helped deepen my understanding of the inextricable link between love of God and love of each other. (Thanks, Fr. Mike.)

If we don’t share the peace of Christ with others, it doesn’t mean anything.

John 3:16

Today’s Gospel reading form the Gospel of St. John begins with the line that almost all Christians (and quite a few non-Christians) recognize merely from the citation to chapter and verse: “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” It is no surprise the line so moves us; as one commentary I read on this passage puts it,

If the entire meaning of human existence could be summed up in a single phrase, it would be this brief statement. God’s love is the one constant in a world of shifting philosophies, politics and fashions. It is the anchor that keeps humanity from drifting hopelessly off course. It is the magnetic center that keeps the world from spinning completely out of control. From the first spark of light to the universe’s last breath, God’s love remains unchanging, undiminished.

As the rest of the passage we hear today reminds us, it is for us to decide what to do in the face of God’s constant, overwhelming love. God offers love, but never forces us to accept it. It is our choice whether to open ourselves to that love and to live in the light of that love or to remain in darkness.

The Universal Destination of Goods

The passage from Acts which we hear proclaimed at Mass today tells us that the early Christian community “was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common….There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the Apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need.”

The early Church acted consistently with what Catholic Social Teaching refers to as the principle of the universal destination of goods. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church explains the principle in this way:

Every person must have access to the level of well-being necessary for his full development. The right to the common use of goods is the “first principles of the whole ethical and social order” and “the characteristic principle of Christian social doctrine.”…It is innate in individual persons, in every person, and has priority with regard to any human intervention concerning goods, to any legal system concerning the same, to any economic or social system of method: “All other rights, whatever they are, including property rights and the right of free trade must be subordinate to this norm [of the universal destination of goods]; they must not hinder it, but must rather expedite its application.

The reading from Acts and the words from the Compendium invite us to reflect on our relationship to the goods of this world and on whether we are following the example of the early Christian community and doing all we can to help ensure that every person has “access to the level of well-being necessary for his full development.” That the method used by the early Christians – selling all their property and houses and turning over all the proceeds to the Apostles – may not be practical for us, does not relieve us of the obligation to act consistently with what the Compendium calls our “serious and urgent social obligation.”