What Happened on That Mountain?

Near the end of the ninth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, we are told that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” What caused Jesus to be so resolutely determined to go to Jerusalem, knowing that such an act would intensify the opposition that had already started to build against him.

The key to understanding Jesus’ determination is the experience we hear proclaimed in today’s Gospel, the event we refer to as the Transfiguration of Jesus. Luke tells us that Jesus goes up the mountain with Peter, John and James to pray. As He so often does, Jesus seeks guidance from God as to what hie next steps should be.

And something happens when Jesus goes up to that mountain to pray. We are told of the appearance of Moses and Elijah, who speak with Jesus of “his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” A cloud, a sign of God’s prseence appears, and from it a voice declaring (as it did at His Baptism) that “this is my chosen son.” And whatever else went on in that prayer, we know that Jesus is changed by the experience. Barbara Reid, O.P. writes,

In this profound encounter with God, Jesus receives surety about his next steps, and this “aha” experience is visible on his face. Notably, Luke does not say that Jesus was transfigured; rather, that ‘his face changed in appearance.’ Like Moses, whose face was radiant after being with God on Mount Sinai (Ex 34:29), and Hannah, whose face was lifted up after her prayer was heard (1 Sm 1:18), so Jesus’ encounter with God is written on his face…During this intense prayer of discernment, Jesus is given sure signs that he is guided by God in his choice.

Jesus’ experience reassures him of God’s love and gives him the strength he needs to “set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

It is important that we hear this Gospel as not just a story about a remarkable thing that happened to Jesus. Rather, we ought to reflect on what reassurance we need from God to make the hard choices we are asked to make and follow Jesus’ example of prayerful discernment. Our own “aha” moments may not be as vivid or splashy as the Gospel descriptions of the Transfiguration, but God will give us the same strength, assurance and confirmation He gave to Jesus.

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Living Boldly (and Prayerfully)

I just finished reading two books by Joyce Meyer, sent to me by the Hachette Book Group: The Confident Woman and Hearing from God Each Morning. Meyer is a well-known Bible teacher and a prolific author, although these are the first of her writings that I’ve read.

The Confident Woman is, to my mind, misnamed. It is true that a few of the chapters address issues unique to women, one of which is a terrific discussion of women in ministry (“Does God Use Women in Ministry?”) and another of which effectively debunks the notion that women are the weaker sex (aptly titled “Are Women Really the Weaker Sex?”). However, a significant part of Meyer’s discussion is equally applicable to men as well as women.

All of us, men and women, experience fear and anxiety and Meyer does not attempt to convince people that they will never experience fear. What she does do effectively is to talk about our ability to act notwithstanding our fear, our ability to be bold in the face of fear, secure in the knowledge that God is always at our side.

A distinction that I think is very helpful in this regard is the distinction Meyer draws between being and feeling. As I’ve discussed in other contexts, feelings rise of their own accord. We can no more stop a feeling from arising than we can stop the waves of the ocean from rolling in by pushing against them. What we can do, however, if not let a feeling determine how we act. We may feel fear, but we need not be fearful. We may not feel confident, but we can be confident.

Another helpful aspect of Meyer’s discussion is the distinction between confidence and conceit. Many of us were warned when we were young not to brag, a teaching that for many got distorted into a notion that they shouldn’t think positive things about themselves, that it is wrong to acknowledge the positive aspects of our being. I think Meyer is quite right that if we remember the sources of our giftedness, then we can have confidence without conceit. In this regard, I like very much her image of taking “each compliment that you receive as a rose and at the end of the day take the entire bouquet and offer it back to God, knowing that it came from Him.”

Hearing from God Each Morning is subtitled 365 Daily Devotions. I’m always interested in seeing new books like this because I am so often asked by people, particularly those new to a daily prayer practice, for suggestions for their daily prayer. For each day of the year, the book includes a bible verse, a short reflection and a simple statement to keep in mind for the day (“God’s Word For You Today”). Parts of it I read through and other parts I used for my morning prayer. Like most books of this sort, not every daily reflection will hit home for every reader. But there is plenty here to reflect on and I think the short “God’s Word” take-away (generally, a very easy line to remember) is something many will appreciate.

Fasting

One of the traditional Lenten practices is fasting, a practice that can be found in many world religions. Jews fast from all food and drink on Yom Kippur, Muslims fast from first light until sundown during the month of Ramadan, Tibetan Buddhists fast durign Nyung-Na retreats and other times. Catholics are required to fast only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and are encouraged to fast at other times during Lent.

Why is it that so many religious groups view fasting as a worthwhile spiritual practice? I think it is good to spend some time reflecting on the value of fasting, lest our Lenten fast becomes, as one of my former parish pastors used to joke, Weight Watchers for Catholics.

Rabbi Allen Maller has an article in a recent issue of America magazine that talks about the value of fasting. One of the points he makes is that fasting teaches compassion. It is one thing, he says, to talk about world hunger and feel sorry that some people don’t have enough food. “But not until one feels hunger in one’s own body is there a real impact: empathy is much stronger than pity. Empathy should lead us to action.” The goal is for our own experience of hunger to impel us to act to (in Isaiah’s words) “remove the chains of oppresiona nd the yoke of injustice and [s]hare your food with the hungry.”

Additionally, Rabbi Maller makes the point that fasting imposes a self-restraint that helps us understand that we don’t always have to have more. We live in a consumer society whose constant message is that we need to have more of this or that to be happy. “By fasting we assert that we need not be toally dependent on external things, even such essentials as food. If our most basic need for food and drink can be suspended for 24 hours, how much more our needs for all the nonessentials.”

Many people, for health reasons, can’t fast. But many of us can. So consider picking some days during Lent to fast, maybe Fridays, the traditional Lenten days of abstinence, or maybe even more often. And if you do, perhaps you might also consider taking the money you would have spent on food that day and donating it to a local food organization that feeds the poor.

Here’s one idea for orgnanizations: at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, our Christian Legal Society is sponsoring a “Bread and Water Fast” on Thursdays during Lent. They provide bread and water to members of the community at no cost and those partaking make a donation of what they would have spent for lunch. The funds collected will be donated at the end of Lent. I’m sure you can think of other ideas.

Journey of Conversion: Lent Retreat – Week 2

This week was the second gathering of those participating in the Lent Retreat in Daily Living both at St. Hubert and at the University of St. Thomas. In the first part of our time together, the participants spent time in small groups, sharing something of their prayer experiences from this past week, which focused on getting in touch with God’s love for them and with both God’s desires for them during this retreat and their own desires.

We turn this week to a focus in our prayer on sin, not in an effort to beat ourselves up about how sinful we are, but to try to get a handle on our own patterns of sinfulness, on those things that allow us to be drawn away from God. During my talk, I spoke about sin and evil and about forgiveness. I also gave basic instruction in praying a daily examen, a prayer that is a useful addition to everyone’s daily prayer, but that is particularly useful during this period when we are focusing on sin. In the course of the talk, I went through the prayer material for the upcoming week.

Several people who are too distant geographically to join us for our weekly sessions are doing the retreat with us remotely. Even if you didn’t start last week, jump right in. If you do, feel free to contact me with any questions either as a comment here or via e-mail.

You can find the recording of the talk I gave this week at St. Thomas here . (The podcast runs for 25:14.) You can find here a copy of the prayer material for the second week of the retreat, as well as a couple of other handouts I distributed (which I refer to during the talk).

Giving Something Up for Lent

One of the first questions my grade school friends and I used to ask each other in Lent was “What are you giving up?” Everyone understood the meaning of the question, since we were all taught that during Lent we ought to give up something. And it had to be something you liked or cared about; it didn’t work to say, “I’m giving up lima beans for Lent.” (I like lima beans now, but hated them as a kid.) So we commonly gave up candy or soda. If you were really brave, you could give up all sweets, which would take in candy as well as soda. If you were less brave, you might say you were giving up sweetened cereal. There were a lot of ways one could go.

For many Catholics, this practice continued into adulthood. One of my friends gives up beer every year for Lent. My sister still, to my knowledge, gives up chocolate.

At one level, since Lent is a penitential season, there is nothing wrong with the idea of giving up something. However, temporarily giving up something that we will then take up again as soon as Lent is over risks missing the point of what Lent is about, which is a permanent conversion, a continual commitment to, more and more each day, turn our lives over to Jesus. The idea is not to abstain from those things that separate me from God only during Lent, and then to pick them up again when Lent is over, but to root them out forever. Conversions means leaving behind our old ways and embracing life with Christ.

I don’t mean to discourage people from giving up something during Lent. If you are giving up chocolate or Starbucks or time on Facebook or whatever, that is fine. But as we move into the second week of Lent, we might perhaps think a little bit about what it is we can give up for Lent that will foster a true conversion of our hearts.

Forgive Us Our Trespasses

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus instructs his disciples on how they are to pray, teaching them the prayer we refer to as The Lord’s Prayer. It is a simple prayer in some ways, but a challenging one in others.

The line I often pause uncomfortably over is “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” As if to underscore the importance of the line, after teaching them the prayer, Jesus warns his disciples, “If you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive you transgressions.”

Read literally, that is a big ouch. I sometimes worry that if God’s forgiveness of me is limited by my forgiveness of others, I’m in big trouble. It sometimes seems so hard to forgive those who have injured me, or, more so, those who injure someone I love. But equally, I have trouble taking the line literally – surely God’s unbounded love for us means that God’s forgiveness is greater than our own and that our failure to forgive others can’t mean that God won’t forgive us.

One of my former spiritual directors, a Jesuit, once said something to me that was helpful in trying to understand what Jesus wanted to convey to his disciples. He suggested that our inability to forgive others makes it hard for us to accept God’s forgiveness of us (much in the way those who have no received unconditional love struggle to believe in God’s love of them). Jesus’ line, then, is not about the limits of God’s forgiveness but on the limits of our ability to fullly embrace that forgiveness. The lines in the prayer create a disposition, an openness to receiving God’s forgiveness by opening ourself to forgiving others. And so when I pray the line, I ask for the grace to be more forgiving of others.

What Determines Your Behavior?

It is easy to justify to ourselves a snide or impatient remark or an uncharitable act by deciding that the other person deserved it. He wasn’t very nice to me, so why should I be nice to him? She snubbed me, so I’ll just walk past her next time I see her. He’s so nasty all the time, why should I waste any energy on him? The scenarios are different, but the impulse to behave toward others as they behave toward us feels the same whatever the circumstances that cause it to arise.

The reality, of course, is that we don’t need to let other people’s moods and behaviors determine ours. Joyce Meyer, in a book of hers I’m reading titled The Confident Woman, recalls a story told of a Quaker man. The man was walking down the street with a friend of his one evening and stopped to purchase a newspaper. The proprietor of the newsstand was unfriendly and rude to him. Nonetheless, the Quaker was kind and respectful in his dealing with the man. As he and his friend continued down the street, the friend asked him, “How could you be so cordial to him with the terrible way he was treating you?” The man responded, “Oh, he is always that way; why should I let him determine how I am going to act?”

Indeed, why should we ever let someone else determine how we will act? If we are people of love, if we are intent on modeling our lives on the life of Jesus, then our goal ought to be to treat others as our loved brothers and sisters regardless of how they act toward us.

Sometimes that it hard. The impulse to “hit back” does sometimes rise. When it does, we need to remember that we need not follow it. That it is our choice whether to let someone else determine how we are going to act or whether to be the person God calls us to be.