St. Jerome and Looking Forward, Not Back

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. Jerome, who both translated, and wrote many works of commentary on, the Bible. He was an avid student and scholar of whom St. Augustine once said, “What Jerome is ignorant of, no mortal has even known.” Less attractively, I have also read that he had a very bad temper and and that some of the letters he wrote were quite vitriolic. However, although swift to anger, he was also swift to feel remorse for his shortcomings.

Having said that, Jerome was a believer that we should not dwell on our shortcomings. We can sometimes get so caught up in our failure to meet our expectations of what we ought to have achieved that we divert our energies and attention from moving forward.

I think St. Jerome’s motto on this is a good one to keep in mind: “Happy the [one] who makes progress daily, who does not weigh what he did yesterday, but makes his resolution for today and keeps it. The holy [one] sets his heart on ascending.”

Each day is a new one. Maybe we didn’t do as well yesterday as we might on whatever it is we resolved for the day – perhaps to be more patient with a frustration at work, or to be more gentle with someone who tends to raise our ire. One response is to castigate ourselves for our weakness, getting worked up at all of the ways we didn’t measure up. Another is to soberly acknowledge our shortcoming of yesterday and treat today as a new day, resolving to do our best as we go forward.

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God Has An Answer For Everything

Sometimes things seem so hard for us. And when they do, excuses come easily to us. We can come up with all sorts of reasons why we can’t possible do whatever it is that God wants us to do.

But the truth is that whatever excuse we can dish up, God already has an answer for us.

When we say “I’m afraid,” Jesus says “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 28:10)…”I have not given you a spirit of fear. ” (2 Timothy 1:7)

When we say “I’m all alone,” Jesus says “I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

When we say “It’s impossible,” Jesus says, “What is impossible for human beings is possible for God.” (Luke 18:27)

When we say I’m just too tired,” Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28

When we say “I don’t have the strength to go on,” God say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 9)

Go ahead – try to come up with more excuses. I’m willing to wager that no matter what we come up with, God has a response. So perhaps we ought to just drop the excuses and go on about our business – go on about God’s business.

Nonviolence vs. Love

I attended a talk the other night by Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, the opening of a Peace Studies Conference held at the College of St. Benedict. One of first points the speaker made had to do with what nonviolence meant to Gandhi.

Someone once asked Gandhi why he spoke in terms of nonviolence rather than love. Why use a negative, speaking simply of “not” being something, rather than affirmatively speaking of love. Love, the questioner implied carried with it something greater and more positive than merely nonviolence.

Gandhi’s replied that he was all in favor of love, but that he thought nonviolence was a better and fuller term to use for his purposes, a term that he believed conveyed something much more than “not” being violent. Love, Gandhi explained, was a word that has many meanings. The risk he saw was that one might infer from love a passivitity, a passive acceptance of the situation. Just take what is meted out to you and love in response.

Gandhi, however, believed that struggle is necessary. One must struggle against injustice. One must struggle for peace. In Gandhi’s mind, nonviolence includes love, but also carries with it an understanding of the need to struggle. Far from being passive, nonviolence is an active, loving struggle.

The lesson is perhaps a simple one, but one worth being reminded of. Love is not passive. Love does not excuse us from fighting (albeit nonviolently) for peace and for justice in this world.

St. Vincent dePaul’s Warning Against an Excess of Virtue

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of one of my great heroes, St. Vincent dePaul. Growing up, I knew nothing about St. Vincent, except that I had some vague knowledge that he had something to do with the large St. Vincent dePaul Society collection bins in our schoolyard into which we periodically deposited old clothing and other items for the poor. However, during my fourteen years on the faculty of St. John’s law school in NY (where I was before moving to Minneapolis), I learned much about Vincent from the Vincentian priests who were, in one way or another, part of the university community and I grew to love him (and them).

One of the things Vincent understood was that while zeal is a positive trait, every virtue “has two vicious extremes” that “we must pass directly between.” For Vincent “virtue always lies in the happy medium.” In an address he gave to seminarians, he spoke a warning of the excess of zeal.

And yet we must realize that even though God has commanded us to love him with all our hearts and with all our strength, all the same his goodness doens’t mean that in our exuberance we should go so far as to impair or ruin our health; no, no, God doesn’t ask us to kill ourselves for this…Very often the devil tempts us in this way. When he is unable to persuade us to do evil directly, he gets us to undertake more than we can manage and overlaods us until we are weighed down by too great a weight, too heavy a burden.

This is an important warning and something St. Ignatius also spoke about. For those of us following a spiritual path, the temption will not be to do some viciously evil act. As I sometimes joke with people during programs I give, it is not like we’re going to walk outside after doing our morning prayer and feel a temptation to rob a bank or to bop a random person walking past us on the head. Rather, the temptation will be disguised as something that looks admirable and good to us. So, we need to be on guard to ensure that our virtues do not turn into vices by a failure to avoid extremes.

The Rich Man’s Loss

Today’s Gospel from St. Luke is Jesus’ tale to the Pharisees of the rich man and Lazarus. Each day, the rich man “dined sumptuously,” while lying at his door “was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell form the rich man’s table.” The story goes on to tell what happened to each after their death, but what I want to focus on is that opening image.

One can almost imagine the rich man walking into his house day after day, having to practically step over Lazarus in the process. I suspect that over time, the man ceased to even notice that the poor man was lying there, seeing him as part of the surroundings. What he didn’t see was his loss. He wouldn’t have seen it that way – he had everything and Lazarus had nothing. But he missed seeing something that could have changed his life.

Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, spoke eloquently on what the rich man missed out on: not merely a chance to feed someone, but a chance to live in relationship with him. He writes:

You can imagine someone in the street falling down and your going to help the person to get up. Then something happens. As you listen to that person you become friends. Perhaps you discover that he or she is living in squalor and has little money. You are not just being generous, you are entering into a relationship which will change your life. You are no longer in control. You have become vulnerable; you have come to love that person. You have listened to her story. You have been touched by that incredible beautiful person who has lived something incredibly difficult. You are no longer in control, you are no longer just the generous one; you have become vulnerable. You have become a friend.

We think of the rich man “suffering torment” after his death because he didn’t share his food with Lazarus. But his greater reason for torment was failing to take the opportunity to be in relationship with someone in need – to become vulnerable, to love.

Most of us dont’ walk over beggars covered with sores on the way into our dinner table. But I suspect we all have people we don’t see – people in need with whom we could be in relationship.

Recognizing God in Our Daily Life

I had never heard of a blog book tour before Tribute Books asked me to participate in one. The book that is on tour this month is Why God Matters: How to Recognize Him in Daily Life, written by a father-daughter team of Karina Lumbert Fabian and Deacon Steven Lumbert.

In the book, the two authors share their stories about how they have experienced God in their lives. Their stories are presented in short alternating chapters (seven written by Deacon Steve and six by Karina). Each of the chapters is designed to illustrate a different aspect of the authors’ experience of God, for example, the ways in which God manifest his presence in times of difficulty or what it means to have a personal relationship with God. In addition, each chapters contains a “Life Lesson”, sometimes in the form of suggestions for prayer or reflection and other times in the form of “tips” to finding ways to bring God into our lives, as well as both a scripture reading and a passage from the Catechism of the Catholic Church for further reflection.

My biggest criticism of the book is that the chapters are too short to really develop the idea presented in any extensive way. While I appreciate that the authors are writing for “average, everyday people” without a lot of time on their hands, I thought the two short pages devoted to each chapters was too cursory to be satisfactory.

Having said that, many of the vignettes presented will resonate with readers, as they present common experiences in the lives of persons of faith. Others will hopefully be encouraged to be more attuned to the ways in which God may be trying to communicate with them. The book is well-written and conveys clearly the authors’ faith and their conviction that “God must be an active part of our lives.”

You can find a list of other blog reviews of this book here. You can find the book’s website here.

An Appointed Time for Everything

During the folk masses in my parish in the late 1960’s, one of the songs that we sang with some regularity was the Birds, Turn, Turn, Turn! (To Everything There is a Season). At some point, I came to realize that the song was adapted almost entirely from today’s first Mass reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes.

There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every thing under the heavens. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant….A time to weep, and a time to laugh..a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embrace. A time to seek, and a time to lose…a time to be silent, and a time to speak…

I wonder sometimes if I am any better at accepting the truth of this passage now than I was when I joyfully sang out the words of the song during our folk masses over forty years ago.

A Tibetan lama whose teachings I studied when I lived in Nepal and India used to accuse Westerners of having an “Instant Coffee” mentality. We want what we want NOW. We love e-mail because then we don’t have to wait for the time it takes to send something by post. We eat food out of the growing season of the area in which we live because not having a particular food item until it is naturally available is not acceptable to us. I could list plenty of examples, as could any of you, without any real difficulty, on matters of greater or lesser significance.

As hard as it is for us, I think there is some value in accepting that there is a time for everything, and that time is not necessarily now. Things have their own rhythm and develop in their own time. What a difference it could make to our peace of mind and our moods (and therefore, I suspect, to the happiness of those who come in contact with us) if we could simply embrace and accept those rhythms. If we could let go of our need for immediate satisfaction of whatever our current need or desire happens to be.

Fall Reflection Series – Developing the Beatitudes in Our Lives

This week was the second session of the Fall Reflection Series I’m offering at the University of St. Thomas Law School, titled, “Jesus Speaks.” The series seeks to deepen our appreciation of fundamental Christian teachings drawn from the words of Christ.

The title of this week’s session was Developing the Beatitudes in Our Lives. After we talked a little about the participants’ prayer experience the previous week on the Lord’s Prayer, I gave a talk focusing on how we might discern what the beatitudes mean for our lives, how they direct our lives of discipleship. I shared with the participants Pope Benedict’s view of the Beatitudes as both a “veiled interior biography” of Jesus and a set of directions for his disciples and offered some thoughts on each of the beatitudes. Following that talk, the participant’s had some time for individual reflection on the ways in which the beatitudes challenge them.

You can find the recording of the talk I gave this week at St. Thomas here . (The podcast runs for 19:27.) You can find here a copy of the prayer material for this week.

Sukkot: A Reminder of Impermanence

The Jewish feast of Sukkot begins at sundown this evening. Sukkot is a reminder of the impermanent nature of all things. During this seven-day festival, Jews eat their meals in temporarily erected huts. This reminds them of their life in the desert – with no permanent place to live, no place to call home from one day to the next.

One rabbi had this to say about the festival of Sukkot: “At its heart, Sukkot is a time to recognize our impermanence, to celebrate together, and to reach into our own souls to find new meaning and new riches…. [All of the joy and celebration takes] place in the flimsiest, most vulnerable of structures, ..and you can see just how susceptible a Sukkah is to the weather…[O]ur holiday calls us to surround ourselves in impermanence—to allow ourselves to be vulnerable—and then to celebrate to our heart’s content.”

If we are spiritual people, then whatever our religion is, we are conscious that we are defined by more than our human existence. Indeed this current human existence of ours is a blip in the totality of life eternal. As my friend Joe observes, we are temporary visitors to this planet. We, of course, don’t tend to behave that way – our every day reality is that this is our life; it is, after all, (except for those who claim to have actually memories of past lives) the only life we know. But it is a short and temporary blip nonetheless.

The idea of impermanence captures this reality that all things in this world are transitory. And that implies a view about the relationship of the individual to the world, one that is captured in the idea of renunciation, a term that is easily misunderstood. We hear the word and we cringe, thinking it means we are not allowed to have things, or at least that we are not supposed to enjoy them. But renunciation is not about not enjoying what we have. Rather it is about understanding the transitory nature of worldly pleasure and understanding that there is something more needed to satisfy us – that, ultimately, to be truly happy, we need to turn from materialism to a life of spirit. And that is something that requires an intentional process of transformation.

Celebrating St. Matthew

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Matthew, one of the twelve apostles and one of the four Gospel writers. Matthew is also typically understood to be the tax collector called to follow Jesus in Chapter 9 of Matthew’s Gospel, although at least some scholars argue that it is unlikely that the former tax collector and the Gospel writer were the same person. (The argument is that Matthew’s Gospel relies so heavily on the earlier Gospel of Mark and that someone who was an actual follower of Jesus would not have had any need to rely on an account written by another person.)

Matthew’s Gospel is an interesting one because he both underscores Jesus’ Jewish roots (among other things, opening his Gospel with the geneology that links Jesus to Abraham, David and the kings of Judah) and goes beyond them, stressing the universal scope of the mission of Jesus and his disiples. (“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” Matthew 28:19)

One commentator I read called Matthew’s Gospel the Gospel of Christ’s humanity, suggesting that its “focus is on the humanness of Christ Jesus as a person one can approach, can ‘stand on a level with.'” I would phrase it slightly differerently. For me, when I think of Matthew’s Gospel, what comes to mind are the episodes that instruct us how to lead fully human lives – that teach what it means to live a life modeled on the life of Christ.

In honor of St. Matthew’s feast, today would be a good day to take some time reflecting on Chapter 25 of his Gospel, which offers two rich parables on how we should live (the parable of the ten virgins and the parable of the talents) as well as the Judgement passage, which tells us plainly that what we do for each other, we do for Christ. A equally good alternative would be the Sermon on the Mount in Chapter 5, as the Beatitudes and the related teachings of that sermon offer much to reflect on.