Being Put to the Test

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of the First Holy Martyrs, those who faced persecution at the hands of the Emperor Nero.

The first scripture reading for today’s Mass is a difficult one – the story Abraham and Isaac recounted in Genesis. Take your son and “offer him up as a burnt offering on a height that I will point out to you,” God instructs Abraham.

What kind of a God, we wonder, asks someone to kill his son? His “only one, whom [he] love[s]”? What does it say about God that he would watch someone kill his son as a demonstration of his fealty? It would be completely understandable if one’s initial reaction were something like: No kind of God that I want to be associated with.

But God, of course, does not actually require Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. And if God never intended to have Abraham go through with the act, why ask it in the first place?

One answer is that this was God’s way of asking Abraham to confront the depth of his faith in and love of God. God says, I give all for the sake of my love for you, holding nothing back. Will you do the same? Will you allow nothing to stand in the way of our love? To us, God might add: I give all for you, including the life of my own son. Will you do the same for me?

Tough question. It is easy to say yes – of course, God, you know I’m with you all the way. I’d do anything to show my love for you. (cf. my post of the other day on faith.)

And I sure want to be able to answer with a wholehearted yes. But when I read stories like those of the martyrs we celebrate today or like the Genesis passage about Abraham, I have to wonder how well I would do if put to the test. “I love you, Lord,” are words I mouth multiple times every day, but acting consistently out of that love – especially when doing so involves great personal cost – is much harder.

I marvel at the depth of the faith and love demonstrated by the martyrs, and of Abraham. And continually pray, “Give me their strength. Deepen my faith. Deepen my love. Help me love like you.”

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Peter and Paul

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul. Although each of St. Peter and St. Paul have other days associated with them (e.g., Chair of St. Peter, Conversion of St. Paul), today we celebrate the two together.

Why? One was a disciple during the life of Jesus, the other was converted after his resurrection. One went from fisherman to disciple, the other went from persecutor of Christians to discipleship. And we know from Acts that they sometimes disagreed quite strenuously with each other.

But it may be that it is that last that makes it so appropriate that we celebrate the two together. They disagreed, but their disagreements did not tear them apart. And in that, they are a wonderful model for us.

Calling ourselves Christians does not mean we will always see eye to eye on everything. There will be disagreements, and some of those disagreements will be quite serious. But the invitation is to remain united in spite of our diversity, in spite of our disagreements.

That is not always easy. In fact, sometimes it is downright difficult. Yet Peter and Paul remind us that it is possible. That our commitment to Christ is stronger than our disagreements. Let us draw strength from their example.

O You of Little Faith

It is easy to assert that one has faith. We make expressions of our faith quite easily, whether it be in our recitation of the Creed at Mass each week or otherwise.

It is also easy to look at situations where the faith of others is tested and express confidence that we would have fared better in their situation – that we wouldn’t have doubts if we were in their place. Our faith, after all, is so strong.

I think that is the attitude with which we read passages like today’s Gospel from St. Matthew. The disciples are in a boat on the sea with Jesus when a storm comes upon them. And they are terrified. When we hear Jesus chide them for their lack of sufficient faith, it is easy to be self-satisfied and look with smug superiority at the disciples. We (we are confident) would not have been terrorized by the storm; we would have had more faith.

But as we go about our everyday lives, our faith is not tested all that often. And we don’t know how well we would react if it were.

Ultimately, faith is not measured by how well or how often we profess it with our words. It is about our ability to live lives that reflect our faith – in easy times and in tough ones.

May we all grow in faith, praying in the words of the man who came to Jesus for healing of his son, “I do believe, help my unbelief!”

Being a Contemplative in Action

The phrase “contemplative in action” is a commonly-used description of Ignatian or Jesuit spirituality. It conveys the idea the contemplation is fulfilled by action, that prayer is complemented by our actions of love in the world.

It also conveys something about how we are in the world. I read a wonderful statement that conveys beautifully what that means. It is posed in the form of a question I read in a back issue of Listen, a newsletter for spiritual directors. The question is:

Is it possible to be alive, active in the world, and yet have such calm, such kind of inner openness and presence that one can lead a life, at least in part, that is an expression of that quality of meditative quiescence that’s one the one hand quite alert and on the other hand, completely at ease, completely at rest?

Although framed as a question (the answer to which is yes), it lays out some qualities that describe one who is a contemplative in action: Alive. Active in the world. Possessing an inner openness and presence. Alert. Completely at ease. Completely at rest.

Some of those sound, at first blush, to be contradictory. But they really aren’t. At our best, when we are being contemplatives in action we can be, at one and the same time, active and alert (being Christ in the world) and at ease and at rest (secure in God’s presence in and with us). Busy with our hands, but peaceful in our hearts.

I say “at our best” because we don’t manage to unite those seemingly contradictory elements all the time…maybe not even most of the time. But it is a worthy goal.

The Feast of Self-Gift

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of Corpus Christi – the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. I should specify “the Catholic Church in the United States,” since the actual day of the feast is the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, but the celebration has been transferred to the Sunday following Trinity Sunday in the United States.

Descriptions of the feast of Corpus Christi describe it as a feast that commemorates the institution of the Eucharist, and it does that. But the danger in using only those words is that we focus only on Jesus act and not on what that act demands of us in return.

The Eucharist represents Jesus’ complete self-gift to us. He gave everything – his body and his blood, his whole person – during his life and by his death.

Each time the Eucharist is consecrated at Mass, we hear the words Jesus said to his disciples at the Last Supper. This is my body. This is my blood. Do this in memory of me.

The last is clearly not intended as an afterthought. Rather “Do this in memory of me” calls us to make the same self-gift Jesus made for our sake.

The question this feast of Jesus’ gift of self invites us to ask ourselves, in the words of Sr. Barbara Reid, O.P., I once read is: “How do we replicate the giving of our whole selves, body, mind and spirit, to the one who is the source of all nourishment so that we may be broken open in love for the life of the world?”

Stories of Conversion

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the books on which I’m currently working is a book of about conversion, inspired by my conversion from Catholicism to Buddhism back to Catholicism. (“Currently” is generous – since my priority right now is getting the final manuscript of my book that adapts Tibetan Buddhist analytical meditation for Christians to Oxford University Press by August 1, I haven’t been doing much work lately on the conversion book.) As a result, I find it interesting to read stories chronicling the conversion experiences of others.

I just finished reading Atheist to Catholic: Stories of Conversion, edited by Rebecca Vitz Cherico, sent to me by the Catholic Company as part of its reviewer program. The book contains eleven stories written by converts to Catholicism.

Although the backgrounds of the authors vary and each of the stories is different, their accounts reveal some common themes. One is that God is relentless in trying to draw us closer and uses many methods to try to communicate his love and desire for us. Something we read in a book. A chance comment or encounter. The words of a student. An experience of peace where one is not expecting it.

Another is the gift of spiritual friends, people that both help us along the way to conversion and those who form part of the community we join. Community, as one of the author’s observed is an important part of recognizing Christ’s presence in our lives. Each of the stories speaks of people – lay and religious – who provided support for them on their journey. I smile as I think of some of the people who provided wonderful guidance for me as I struggled with my return to Catholicism from Buddhism.

I found some of the stories to be quite powerful, particularly one written by a professor who journeys from teaching about the Spanish mystics as an academic matter to appreciating that what the mystics were trying to convey cannot be apprehended solely through the intellect. Although it may lose something by being taken out of the context of his story, worth reflecting on is his observation that

living a life in which every act, gesture, and word affirm the faith that can only come from God is different from living in consonance with moral law and the rational truths of theology. It is never at odds with this second, sacramental kind of living, which is the foundation of all spiritual life, but it is nevertheless different from it in the sense that it subsumes it and moves beyond it. Another way of putting it would be that some experience of the sacramental life was a prerequisite for even a superficial understanding of the Spanish mystics or any other mystics.

Some of the stories resonated less strongly with me than others. That may be an inescapable problem when one tries to capture a person’s path to conversion in eight or ten pages. I know myself that when I’ve been asked to write a short article about my conversion or give a 10-15 minutes talk on the subject, it is difficult to do so in a way that does not seem lifeless – that doesn’t cut out so much crucial detail and color as to seem dry and conclusory. As I read a couple of the stories I found myself frustrated at a paragraph of a (dry) sentence or two that either that I knew I would find more satisfactory if I could sit down and hear the author’s story in more detail or that I felt deserved to be challenged in some respect.

Nonetheless, I’m glad to have read the book. At a time when one reads so much about people abandoning their faith, it is good to be reminded of some of the compelling stories of people who have found their way to God.

John the Baptist: A Detached Spirit

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Nativity of John the Baptist, one of my great heroes and a saint about whom I have written before.

There are many reasons I think John the Baptist is a worthy model for us to emulate. This morning I read a description of John by St. Francis de Sales that resonated particularly strongly with me. Francis talked about John as having

a completely detached spirit, detached even from God himself so as to do his will and serve him, to leave God for God, and not to love God in order to love him better.

Detachment is a funny word. I think some people make the mistake of thinking that it means indifference in a negative sense – as in not caring about anything.

However, deSales uses the term in the way St. Ignatius might speak of active indifference (or in the way a Buddhist might speak of absense of attachment or of clinging). That is, his statement describes John as so singleminded in his focus on God as to be unconcerned with his own comfort. So focused on doing the will of God that the cost mattered not to him. He was detached from family, friends, and whatever were his own ideas about what a comfortable life would be. Detachment in this sense does not mean a lack of love or concern for his family and friends, but merely that God came first.

So John models the detachmentwe all should strive for. A devotion to God so great that doing God’s will is the goal of our existence, even when it hurts. Even when it requires us to leave God for God.

Love Made Visible

This year’s commencement address at Northwestern University was given by Stephen Colbert, and it was a fine address. After a lot of fun on a number of subjects, he got to his primary message to the students.

After observing that one’s dreams change over time, Colbert told the students it was important for them to remember that whatever their dreams are, not achieving one’s dream does not make one a loser, and achieving one’s dream does not make one a winner. Elaborating, he explained that after his own graduation from Northwestern, he moved to Chicago to do improvisation. There are few rules in improve, but a central one he learned is this:

You are not the most important person in the scene. Everybody else is. And if everybody else is more important than you are, you will naturally pay attention to them and serve them.

But the good news is you are in the scene too, so hopefully to them you are the most important person and they will serve you. No one is leading. You are all following the follower, serving the servant.

You cannot win impro and life is an improvisation you have no idea what will happen next… And Like improve you cannot win your life.

He went on to say that even when it might look like you are winning – and he described ways it looked like he is “winning” with his show, including that there are many people who are serving him in one way or another – “at its best I am serving them just as hard. And together we serve a common idea.” And a sure sign, he added, that things are going well is that no one can remember whose idea is whose and who should get credit for what.

Colbert went on to tell them that if the goal is to serve others and, together with others, serve a common idea, then each has to determine what is the common idea and who are the people they will serve it with. And in identifying what that is, he observed

You will truly serve only what you love because service is love made visible.
If you love friends, you will serve friends.
If you love community, you will serve community.
If you love money, you will serve money.
And if you love only yourself, you will serve only yourself and you will have only yourself
So, no winning. Instead, try to love others and serve others and hopefully find those who will love and serve you in return.

Service is love made visible. A good mantra for us all to remember.

You can listen to the entirety of the commencement speech here.

Thomas More

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of Thomas More, patron saint of lawyers and politicians, among others. More, referred to as “a man for all seasons” because of his wide scholarship and knowledge, is known by many through the play of the same name.

More, as most people know, was killed because he refused to support King Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn and because he would not acknowledge Henry as the supreme head of the Church in England. For More, this was a decision of conscience on which he could not compromise.

More reminds us that there can be a high cost to discipleship and that following the demand of conscience is not always easy.

As I was thinking about More, I came across a passage from St. Paul’s letter to Timothy that could have been written with More as the model for one who follows Paul’s instruction. Paul wrote:

Proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching. For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths. But you, be self-possessed in all circumstances; put up with hardship; perform the work of an evangelist; fulfill your ministry.

A good description of Thomas More, who we celebrate today.

Do To Others Whatever You Would Have them Do to You

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus instructs his disciples to “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you.” Although Jesus describes this teaching as “the Law and the Prophets,” the Jewish formulation (via Hillel) is actually slightly different. It teaches: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow.”

How are those two different?

A simple way to appreciate the difference is to consider the difference in the answer to two questions. First, based on the Jewish formulation: What do I not want others to do to me; what in the behavior of others towards me make me unhappy? Second, based on the Gospel formulation: how do I like others to treat me; what in the behavior of others towards me makes me happy?

The first question highlights the fact that the original formulation seems to function more as a check on bad behavior more than an encouragement of positive behavior. E.g. answering the first by saying, “I don’t like it when others are nasty to me,” discourages me from nasty behavior.

However, asking the question in the positive sense has a much different effect in term so encouraging virtuous behavior. Answering the second, e.g. by saying, “I’m really touched when someone does something unexpectedly kind for me,” that has the potential to impel one to affirmatively look for some opportunity to do some gratuitous unexpectedly nice act for another that I might not otherwise have thought to do.

I think the slight difference in phrasing is meaningful and that, as he so often does, Jesus ups the ante, so to speak, demanding more of his disciples – and therefore of us – than did the old law.