It’s All About Love

There is something in us that likes complicated answers to big questions. When we are asking about the key to salvation, we think there ought to be some detailed, multifaceted program to get us there. We think the path to God, or enlightenment, or whatever word we want to give us should involve something big. Something complicated. Something fascinating.

But, today’s second Mass reading, from St. Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians, reminds us that is it all about love. Jesus already preached this – when asked what was the greatest commandment, he said: Love God and love one another. In his Hymn to Love, Paul gives beautiful commentary to Jesus’ command. Everything else, Paul tells us – prophecy, tongues, whatever – all passes away. I can speak in human and angelic tongues, comprehend all gifts and mysteries, have all faith, give everything away, I can do it all – but in the absence of love, none of it means anything. What is real, what is lasting, what is the key to perfect life with God is love. Love that is patient…love that is kind…love that does not seek its own interests, but rejoices with the truth. “Love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

We look for complications. We are fascinated by elaborate plans. But it really is quite simple. Love. It’s all about love.

Advertisements

Franciscan Blessing

I have a special place in my heart for St. Francis and, therefore, all things Franciscan. My friend Gerry passed on to me the other day this Franciscan blessing that someone had sent to him. I read it with a half-smile, because it a a very challenging blessing…one that invites us into deeper discipleship.

May God bless you with discomfort
at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships,
so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger
at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people,
so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears to shed
for those who suffer pain, rejection, starvation and war,
so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them
and turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness
to believe that you can make a difference in this world,
so that you can do what others claim cannot be done!

Encountering Others

One of the books I’m currently reading is James Carroll’s Practicing Catholic, which was recommended to me by my friend Joe. At one point in the book, Carroll discusses the difference between Catholicism in the Old World and Catholicism in America. He writes: “In the Old World, boundaries defined experience. Across generations, Jews lived in ghettos, Christians lived in confessional states. Encounters of like with unlike were the exception. In the New World, boundaries – the very frontier – existed to be crossed.” Thus, “In America, Jews, Protestants, and Catholics, sooner and later, encountered each other as neighbors (as, eventually, would Confucinists, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims – and atheists.”

There are clearly some, perhaps many, who think the Old World way is better, who think separation from those who are different (religiously and otherwise) is the best way to remain pure in our own beliefs. But reading Carroll’s description reminded me of a passage from a Barbara Brown Taylor book that my friend Richard sent to me ther other day. In An Altar in the World, Taylor asks the question, “who could be better equipped to pop the locks on our prisons than people in whom we see nothing or ourselves?” In elucidation, she quotes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ suggestion that “the supreme religious challenge is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image.” Only if we can do that, says Taylor can we “see past our own reflections in the mirror to a God we did not make up.”

As I reflect on these two passages together, I think the only way we can encounter God in a genuine way – the God in whose image we are created, rather than a god who we create in our own image – is to encounter those, to use Taylor’s words, “in whom we see nothing of ourselves,” to rub elbows with those who are not us.

Thomas Aquinas

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. Thomas Aquinas, philosopher, theologian and Doctor of the Church.

Aquinas said many things we would find offensive today. I take particular umbrage at some of the things he said about women. Things like: “As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active power of the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of a woman comes from defect in the active power.”

On a variety of subjects, however, Aquinas has offered much for us to reflect on. In connection with today’s Gospel, the Magnificat reflection for today quotes him talking about Fear of the Lord, one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that is frequently misunderstood.

Aquinas explains that one of the things that helps us to persevere in doing good is a “continual wholesome fear, for as soon as man thinks that he is so secure that he cannot fall he then and there fails to perform good words. ‘Unless you hold yourself diligently in the fear of the Lord, thy house will be quickly overthrown.’ (Sir 27:3) The fear of the Lord is the safeguard of life.”

Reading Aquinas’ words reminds us that fear of the Lord is not about fear of punishment. Rather it is about understanding that in ourselves there is no security, but that our security lies in God. Fear of the Lord is about awe and reverence for our God in whom lies our salvation.

Making a Difference

We all want to make a difference. We want our lives to matter. We want to mean something to those we come in contact with. And what we really want is for our efforts to make a difference that is more then ephemeral, one that will last. At the end of our teen masses we often sing a sing that instructs us to “Go make a difference in the world.”

The real question is what does it mean to make a difference? Often our actions seem very small in light of large problems. Will the check I wrote to Doctors Without Borders make a differerence given the level of devastation in Haiti? Will the pre-natal vitamins my friend Richard distributed when he traveled to that same country last year to do some work in health clinics make a differnence in the lives of the children whose mothers took those vitamins?

Other times, the kind of work we do makes is hard to assess whether we made any lasting difference. Will taking my class make a difference in the lives of my law students? Will the talk I gave to some high school confirmation students have any lasting effect on their lives? Who can say.

And the reality is that most of the time, we can’t really know if we made a difference and that may be something we just have to accept. That the best we can do is be true to our Gospel call; in the words of the song we sing at the end of the teen Mass: “to let the people see the love of God in you and me…[to be] the hands of Christ reaching out to those in need…the spirit of hope…the voice of peace.” And to trust that we and those with whom we come in contact will be transformed by the encounter.

The Gospel Truth

I’ve just finished reading The Gospel Truth: A Lectionary-Based Catechism for Adults, by Kenneth Ogorek, sent to me by The Catholic Company. For each of the Sunday liturgies in all three cycles, the book includes the Gospel reading, a short discussion linked to relevent sections of the Catechism, three questions for reflection (one intended for children) and some suggestions for further reading from both scripture and the Catechism.

The author’s goal was to create a resource especially (although not excluvisely) intended for homilists to help them to tie the Sunday Mass readings to Catholic teaching as elucidated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is clearly also the author’s hope that the book might serve as a resource for faith sharing and prayer groups outside of the Mass setting as well.

When I first came back to Catholicism after spending more than two decades as a Buddhist, one of the first things I did was to read the Catechism from beginning to end. Having left Catholicism while still in high school, it seemed to me to be a good way to move toward an adult understanding of the Catholic faith. Thus, I applaud the idea of finding a way to expose more Catholics to Church teaching.

The problem with using the Lectionary of Sunday Mass readings as the vehicle for conveying the Catechism is that many of the choices made by the author of which section or sections of the Catechism to tie to a particular Gospel reading seem strained. To give one example, in the discussion provided for St. Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration, one of the two Catechism sections used is paragraph 2051, addressing the infallibality of the Pope. How one gets papal infallibality from the Transfiguration is beyond me; the author attempts to draw a link from Peter’s “babbl[ing] something barely coherent – something about making tents” in the Gospel to his transformation by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It seems to me that better lessons can be drawn from the Transfiguration.

Apart from the sometimes strained links between the Gospel and Catechism passages, the biggest drawback for me was that the effort to cover all three lectionary cycles in a single volume almost guarantees that the discussion of each will be somewhat superficial. I appreciate that the discussions are intended to be fairly basic, but their brevity means they raise questions they can’t explore. Thus, for example, one entry includes the statement, “The legitimate diversity in our Catholic Church reminds us that while unity is supremely important, it need not always mean complete uniformity,” a statement that begs for some elucidation of how one determines when uniformity is important and when it is not. The questions following the discussion are of mixed quality, some inviting real depth and others seeming to raise yes/no questions that don’t seem destined to facilitate any meaninful reflection.

Having said that, I agree with the author’s assessment that this book is “a good step in a good direction.” It represents a worthwhile effort to help facilitate reflection on the Sunday Gospels and to create at least some familiarity with the Catechism.

Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul

There was a particular point during my years as a Buddhist when I was struggling with the question whether to give up the vows I had taken as a Buddhist nun and to return to lay life. Aggravating my struggle was the sense that I had somehow irrevocably blown it, that I was hopelessly confused. I was irritated that there I was, thirty years old and still floundering about what course I should be following. It took me a while to realize that I was seeing things from the absurd point of view that somehow one ought to determine the correct course of one’s life by age 20 or so and that, thus, my floundering at age 30 was indicative of some major flaw.

I experienced a different version of this difficulty more than a decade later, when I was discerning the call to train as a spiritual director. I struggled with the sense that it was too late for me to be doing this. I looked at others involved in the ministry, who had seemed to know much earlier than I what their path was. Who was I at this late date to be deciding this was work I could engage in?

The story of the conversion of Paul is a good antidote for both versions of those feelings of inadequacy. Paul spends years persecuting and killing Christians before he finally, with God’s intervention, finds his way. God didn’t look at Paul and say – too late, you should have gotten it right earlier. God didn’t look at Paul and say – can’t rely on him, he’s too confused.

Some of us take a little longer to get it than others. Some of us follow a less straight path than others. But God invites all of us and, when we are ready, however long that takes, God say, welcome. It’s never too late.