“Neither Death, Nor Life….Nor any Other Creature…”

Today’s second Mass reading is a passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans that I love. Paul starts by asking what will separate us from the love of Christ? He answers with his conviction that

neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Reading the passage this morning brought back a very powerful experience I had during my retreat two weeks ago. As I was sitting in prayer, I became overwhelmed with a sense of God’s love and realized in that moment in a way far more profound than I had before that when we say God is love we literally mean it. That is, I was struck with the reality that love is not a choice on God’s part. It is not that God can love me or not love me. God ONLY loves, and my very creation and continued existence is an act of God’s love. There is no me separate from God’s love; without God’s love there would not be me.

That is a very powerful realization. In that moment I understood with enormous force St. Paul’s conviction that there is nothing – absolutely nothing – that can separate us from the love of God.

That is a realization that makes all the difference in the world.

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St. Francis’ Journey and Dream

As many know from prior posts, I love St. Francis of Assisi. I always felt and affinity for him, and during my Buddhist years he was my one continuous link to Christianity.

I just finished reading a wonderful book titled Francis: The Journey and the Dream, by Murray Bodo, a new 40th anniversary edition of which has recently been released. Unlike other books about Francis I’ve read, this is less a biography than (as John Michael Talbot terms it in his foreword to this new edition) a book of prose based on history. And a beautiful book of prose it is. It captivated me from the first chapter.

The book does not attempt to present Francis as superhuman or perfectly holy. It conveys his doubts, his fears, his discouragement and the loneliness he sometimes felt. But it also conveys the fidelity with which he followed God’s call to rebuild his church and the power of his evangelization. With respect to the latter, Francis understood more than many that the most powerful evangelization was example: “If Francis were holy and Christlike, those who saw him would eventually look at their own following of Christ in view of what Francis himself was.”

The episodes of Francis’ life Bodo relates reveal many of the things I love about Francis. His humility. The incredible gratitude he had, holding “everything to his heart with the enthusiasm of a child surprised by some unexpected toy,” and thanking God constantly for everything he experienced. His understanding that “our existence alone is enough” and that we never need strive to be anything other than fully ourselves. His ability to find God in everything because of his sureness that God was always with him. The love he showered on all who he came in contact with. Bodo writes beautifully that all of Francis’ life was an effort to preserve his original insight into love and to act always out of that insight…the insight that

love was looking into the eyes of the other; and forgetting the dark void between you and forgetting that no one can walk in a void, you start boldly across, your arms outstretched to give of yourself and to receive of the other.

Whether, like me, you already have a special place in your heart for Francis or whether you simply want to learn a bit more about this man of God, you will benefit from reading this book. Francis’ life is as apt a model now as it was for his initial followers all those years ago.

This book was sent to me by the Catholic Company as part of its reviewer program.

Serving and Being Served

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. Martha, about whom I’ve written before.

The first time we encounter Martha in the Gospels is in the passage from St. Luke that recounts Jesus going to the home of Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus. While Mary sat at the feet of Jesus listening to him speak, Martha bustles around “burdened with much serving.” When she complains to Jesus and asks him to instruct her sister to help her, he replies, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

Many of us find it more comfortable to serve than to let ourselves be served., Yet, writing about this passage, Sr. Ruth Burrows, a Carmelite nun, writes that Luke uses this incident “to stress the point that, in the presence of Jesus – no ordinary guest – the only proper thing to do is to allow him to feed us, to serve us.”

There is nothing wrong with serving others, and we are called to do so. But we also have to allow ourselves to be served as well. Making a link I had never considered before, Sr. Burrows writes:

For me, it is not without significance that Luke relates the Martha and Mary story immediately after the parable of the Good Samaritan. We can see that the Samaritan, consciously or not, was listening to God, looking at God and therefore recognized him immediately in the wounded man, and set to work to minister to him, for we minister to God, serve God, only in our neighbor. The priest and Levite were, like Martha, intent on serving God. Presumably they were hastening on their way to the temple to perform their respective religious duties.

The comparison reminds us that each of us is called to be both Martha and Mary. Serve others, of course. But “Only if we have the heart of Mary will our service of others be selfless.”

And that means taking time to listen, not only to serve.

Separating The Wicked from the Righteous

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples what it will be like “at the end of the age.” The wicked will be separated from the righteous and the former thrown into the furnace. In several other passages in the Gospels, Jesus conveys the same message about separating the wheat form the chaff.

One question you might ask yourself is: how do you react to that news?

I get the sense that some people hear passages like this one with something approaching glee, happy that those they deem unworthy (on whatever grounds they make that calculus) will get their comeuppance. They are confident they will be chosen with the righteous and are happy to dismiss those who will be thrown in the furnace. And so they hear this passage with a kind of “gotcha” reaction.

I don’t think that is God’s reaction. I believe that God wants to reconcile all people to God’s self. And I am confident that if God had God’s druthers, at the end of the day there would be no one tossed into the furnace. Everyone would be sitting around the table enjoying fellowship with God.

God’s reaction should guide our own. These warnings of Jesus are not meant to cause us to judge each other. Rather, they should cause us to examine what we might do to help advance God’s desire. How might we help and encourage others so that they will be gathered with the righteous?

Finding the Extraordinary in the Ordinary

Today’s Gospel from St. Matthew is a short version of the Gospel we heard on Sunday, in which Jesus likens the Kingdom of heaven to a treasure buried in the field, “which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field,” or like a merchant who, when he “finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.” Jesus uses similar analogies at other times to try to give us an understanding of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus’ descriptions tell us something crucially important about this Kingdom of which he speaks, that is, that it is not out there somewhere far away in time or space. Rather, it is right here underneath our noses.

We tend, as my pastor observed in speaking about this reading on Sunday, to see only the ordinary when we look around us. Our task, however, is to train ourselves to see the extraordinary that lies underneath the ordinary – the treasure buried in the field. We know it is there – we’ve all had glimpses of it…moments when the transcendent breaks through and we see that which is normally not visible. We need to remember those moments, and savor them, so we will train ourselves to see them more and more.

The Kingdom of God is at hand, Jesus told us. He meant it. It is for us to see it underneath the ordinary.

Teach Your Children

Although they are not mentioned in the Gospels, by ancient tradition we know the parents of Jesus’ mother Mary as Joachim and Anne. Today the Catholic Church celebrates their Memorial. Why have a feast celebrating a couple we know nothing about from the Gospels?

It happened that in close coincidence to my recognition that today is Anna and Joachim’s memorial, I read a blog post written last week by the eleven or twelve year-old son of some friends. (Yes, one of the blogs I try to read with some regularity is written by this incredibly thoughtful young man.) He was wondering what determined whether someone became what he termed an “individual intellectual.” It was not, he decided, primarily a function of either one’s own intelligence or their family’s economic level, but rather the priorities and values of one’s parents.

And my young friend’s realization helps answer why we honor Anne and Joachim. Yes, Mary was blessed by God; by Catholic teaching she was born without sin. But we know a lot of people with innate gifts and blessings who don’t use them well.

Today’s memorial recognizes that just as Mary and Joseph were instrumental in Jesus’ early growth and education, Anne and Joachim, by their values and teachings, helped Mary grow into the young woman who would say “Yes” to God’s enormous invitation to her to birth Jesus into the world. Anne and Joachim, by their priorities and values, raised a young woman able to ponder so many things in her heart that she could not completly understand. It was Anne and Joachim who taught Mary the courage that would later enable her to stand at the foot of the cross of her son.

May we teach our own children (biological or otherwise entrusted into our care) as well as Anne and Joachim taught Mary.

St. James

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. James, one of the apostles and brother of St. John. Whenever I think of James, the first thing to comes to mind is his pushy mother, who we get a glimpse of in today’s Gospel. “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your Kingdom,” she asks Jesus.

I’m sure I’m not the only one to react with some skepticism when, in response to Jesus’ question whether they can drink the chalice he is about to drink, both brothers respond in the affirmative. But James, in fact, was speaking truth in his response – he was the first of the apostles to be martyred – “killed by the sword” by Herod, according to Acts.

Whether he sits at Jesus’ right or left in the Kingdom, we don’t know: as Jesus responded to James’ mother, “to sit at [his] right and at [his] left…is for those for whom it has been prepared by [Jesus’] Father.” But we do know that when called by Jesus, James and his brother immediately left their father and the boat in which they were mending their nets and followed Jesus. And we know that James was one of the three privileged to be present both at the Transfiguration and at the agony in Gethsemane. He is also believed to have evangelized in Spain.

And so as we pray in the Opening Prayer for today’s Mass in honor of St. James, “May his profession of faith give us courage and his prayers bring us strength.”

“Ask Something of Me”

In today’s first Mass reading, taken from the first Book of Kings, God appears to Solomon in a dream and says “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.” Solomon, the reading tells us, humbled by being called to serve as King and knowing how difficult the task will be, asks for “an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.” The reading goes on to tell us that God granted Solomon’s request, pleased that he asked for this and not for something like riches or long life.

When I read this passage, what comes to mind is the answer given by Salome when given a similar offer by Herod: ask for anything from me and I will give it to you. Salome asked for the head of John the Baptist on the platter.

A good thought experiment is to ask yourself: what would your answer be. If you were given the offer God made Solomon, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you,” what would you ask?

I think the exercise is valuable only if you are willing to answer it honestly. The idea is not: what should I ask for if given the opportunity to ask for anything (i.e, what would make me seem as noble and holy as Solomon, and as far away as possible from Salome), but what would I actually ask.

I say that because when I sat with this passage and asked myself the question, the answer that came out was that I would ask for healing for a friend who suffers from a debilitating illness. My reaction to myself when that came into my heart was: well, shouldn’t I be asking for something like the transformation of everyone’s heart and soul or at least for world peace. But, if I were being totally honest to myself and God I would say that if I were offered in that moment the ability to ask one thing and have it granted, I would ask that my friend be freed from his suffering.

What happens when you answer the question is between you and God, as it was for me in my prayer. That is, it is for you and God together to evaluate the “merit” or wisdom of your request. But I think asking yourself the question is a good way to enter into dialogue with God about your desires.

Unearned Love

Continuing the theme of my post of a couple of days ago on God’s extravagant love: The opening period (sometimes called the Disposition Phase) of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius invite us to get in touch with a sense of ourselves as the beloved creatures of God – deepening our experience of God’s unconditional love for us.

I read a beautiful passage written by Richard Rohr that explains well why this is so important for us. Rohr writes

It’s quite clear that it is the inner experience of grace that liberates human beings at all levels. It’s the experience of unconditional love that really sets all humans free and heals all their wounds. Without it, human beings live in prisons of tit for tat, measuring, weighing, and counting the cost of everything. I call this the “economy of merit,” where almost all people naturally live, instead of the Gospel-given “economy of grace,” which is a world of abundance and open horizons.

Without a sense of God’s unconditional love for us, we cannot live in an “economy of grace.” As Rohr explains, “[g]race is such a humiliation to the ego, and such a surrendering for the human need to achieve, that even most of church history has lived inside of the economy of merit. We have been offered so much more, but it only makes sense to those who have personally “suffered” the experience of unearned love.”

“Him Whom My Heart Loves”

There are two options for the first Mass reading for today, the day on which the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of Mary Magdalene. The first of those is a passage from the Song of Songs which I love.

On my bed at night I sought him whom my heart loves – I sought him but I did not find him. I will rise then and go about the city; in the streets and crossings I will seek Him whom my heart loves. I sought him but I did not find him. The watchmen came upon me, as they made their rounds of the city: Have you seen him whom my heart loves? I had hardly left them when I found him whom my heart loves.

This passage is a fitting one for a celebration of Mary Magdalene, who loved and sought Jesus. The longing expressed in it presages the longing we see in St. John’s Gospel passage for today, in which we find Mary frantically searching for the body of Jesus.

And just as the passage in the Song of Songs ends with the triumphant expression of the one who finds “him whom my heart loves,” we see Mary’s joy when she realizes that the person she has taken for a gardener is the risen Jesus.

Today we celebrate a woman who Father Raymond-Leopold Bruckberger, O.P., describes as loving Christ “with all the force of her being.” May we all long for Jesus with the force with which she did.