Rouse One Another To Love and Good Works

Today’s first Mass reading from the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “we must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works. We should not stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some, but encourage one another.”

What came to my mind as I prayed with the passage this morning was something I have, on many occasions, heard people say: “I don’t need to go to Mass on Sunday. I can pray to God just as well [in my room][in the woods][elsewhere].”

Of course it it true that we are always in the presence of God and can pray to God at any time and anywhere. We dont’ need to go to Mass to be with God.

But to use the fact that I can pray to God anywhere and anytime as an excuse not to go to Mass views the value of Mass purely from the point of view of my own need. It makes Mass about just me and God, something that is fundamentally mistaken.

St. Paul reminds us that we come together not only for ourselves, but for each other. “We should not stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some, but encourage one another.”

Mass is not just about me and God, but about God, me and my community. We come together, we pray together, we take Eucharist together.

We may never know how our interactions with others may encourage or rouse them to love and good works. Perhaps something we say before or after Mass or during coffee and donuts. Maybe just a kind smile when we pass them. Maybe we or they see something at one of the tables in the narthex about our parish’s charitable and social justice activities. But that doesn’t minimize the importance of our coming together.


Having the Ears and Eyes of Christ

I have always loved the the Prayer of St. Teresa of Avila, Christ Has No Body. And it is a prayer that has been set to music in a number of adaptations by different artists.

The one we want at Mass this past Sunday was by Steven Warner, and I was struck by the line in one of the verses, “No eyes but yours to see as Christ would see.” My mind immediately added, “And no ears but mine to hear as Christ would hear.”

Two images immediately came to my mind, the images of Christ’s encounters with Zacchaeus and with Bartimaeus.

We hear of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus in Luke’s Gospel. Zacchaeus doesn’t thrust himself in Jesus’ path. Instead, Zacchaeus is up in a sycamore tree trying to catch a glimpse of Jesus from afar. Jesus has to look into the Sycamore tree to see Zacchaeus, so that he can invite him down so they can lunch together.

Blind Bartimaeus, who we learn about in Mark’s Gospel, is on the side of the road, crying out Jesus’ name – something he continually does even as the crowds are trying to quiet him. Jesus hears him from afar; he has to tell his disciples to bring Bartimaeus to him so see what he wants.

To see as Christ would see. To hear as Christ would hear. The invitation there is to do more than gaze with compassion on those who are right in front of our face. To do more than hear those standing beside us. Rather it is to see, as Christ did, those who may be hanging back. To hear, as Christ did, those who call out to us from afar.

We need to have the eyes an ears of Christ.

Filtering Out the Background Noise

Finally, after my (gently and not-so-gently) suggesting that he do so for several years, my husband went to an audiologist. After 10 days or so of wearing a test pair of hearing aids, he picked up his permanent pair yesterday. He has some loss of hearing at the upper end of the register and also has a lot of trouble with background noises that interfere with his ability to hear. So, for example, we can have six people to dinner in our home and he has no difficulty participating in the conversation. But, if you put the eight of us in a restaurant, where there are a lot of competing noises, he can’t enjoy himself; it is just too difficult for him to hear what people at the table are saying with all of the background noise.

Hearing aids – which have gotten incredibly sophisticated over the year (but which are not covered by most medical insurance, including ours, but that is another story) – not only amplify sound where needed, but filter out the background noise.

As I was thinking of what a great improvement this will be for Dave, I was reminded of a line in the Prayer of the Faithful at Mass this past Sunday. The Presider said, “As many voices cry out for our attention, may we recognize your voice, saying:” and the people responded, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”

God speaks to us all of the time. Not just to some people, but to all of us. Our problem is hearing him. The “many voices” that “cry out for our attention” often distract us and keep us from hearing where God is calling us, what God is calling us to. The other noises sometimes prevent us from even knowing that God is speaking to us.

We have no magic hearing aid that will filter out the “background noise.” Thus, we need to learn to filter out those noises ourselves. To know that God is always speaking and to be ever vigilent to recognize God’s voice amidst the others.

No One Can Say To Another “I Have No Need For You”

Yesterday’s Gospel was the beautiful passage in the First Letter to the Corinthians, in which St. Paul talks about the reality that we are all one body. Although the short version of the passages was read in the Mass I attended yesterday, the longer version is one well-worth praying with (over and over again).

There were two lines in Fr. Dale Korogi’s sermon at Christ the King yesterday morning that stayed with me afterward. At one point, he said, “No one is any more baptized than anyone else.” At another, he observed “No one can say to another person, ‘I have no need of you.'”

I think we forget the truth of both of those statements all of the time. Notwithstanding Paul’s explanation that no part of the body is any less important than any other and that “if one part suffers all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy,” we sometimes act as if some parts of the the Body of Christ are more important than others. We do it within the Church (forgetting, for example, that a priest or bishop has different functions than a layperson, but is not, by virtue of that difference in function, any more important or valuable to the body than a layperson) and we do it in other parts of our lives (thinking certain jobs or activities signify something about the importance of the person who holds them). We act, in so many ways, as if one or another part of the Body is more important than others. Yet, we are all baptized into the same Body, no one more so than any other.

And we, sadly, all too often forget that we cannot say to any member of the Body, “I have no need for you.” Some “conservative” Catholics think they have no need for “progressive” Catholics, thinking they’d be better off with a “leaner” Church. Some “progressives” think they have no need for “conservatives,” and would be better off if they went elsewhere Some think they would be better off without the institutional hierarchy of the Church.

The truth is that we are all part of the Body of Christ, a body made up of many parts. All matter. All are needed.

Search Deep To Lead Your Own Life

In New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton asks, “How do you expect to arrive at the end of your own journey if you take the road to another man’s city? How do you expect to reach your own perfection by leading somebody else’s life?” Merton insisted is that we need to have the “heroic humility to be yourself and to be nobody by the [person], or the artist, that God intended you to be.”

It is fine to have heroes, people whose lives and commitment to their vocation we admire and aspire to be like. Their example gives us inspiration and strength.

But each of our lives is unique and how we live out our vocation, our discipleship, will look different.

How do we know what it means to live our own life? How do we reach our own perfection? We are exploring questions such as these at our semi-annual vocation retreat for law students this weekend.

Anthony deMello expressed one answer in a story he once told of a conversation between a Master and one of his disciples. The disciple, a Jewish man, asked, “What good work should I do to be acceptable to God?” The Master answered, “How should I know? Your Bible says that Abraham practiced hospitality and God was with him. Elias loved to pray and God was with him. David ruled a kingdom and God was with him too.” The man persisted, “Is there some way I can find my own allotted work?” The Master responded, “Yes. Search for the deepest inclination or your heart and follow it.”

What is your deepest desire?

Stir Into Flame The Gift of God

Today is the Memorial of Saints Timothy and Titus, collaborators, confidants and companions of St. Paul. One of the options for today’s first Mass reading is the opening of St. Paul’s second letter to Timothy.

In the opening paragraphs of the letter, Paul reminds Timothy to “stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.”

I love that line. I love the imagery and I think the reminder is a very important one.

I think sometimes people forget that God doesn’t do all all of the heavy lifting. I’ve heard people say (on more than one occasion) something like, “Oh I don’t really feel like I have to [do][prepare][work] too much here. The Holy Spirit will take care of it.” Or “I’ll just rely on the Holy Spirit.”

It is true that we do what we do with the grace of God and the assistance of the Spirit. But, that doesn’t mean we can just sit back and wait for God to do everything. We have been given the gifts of the Spirit, but it is for us to stir into flame those gifts. We need to nurture our gifts, allow them to grow and use them for the purposes for which we have been given them.

That is not always easy, and the last line of today’s first reading is Paul’s encouragement to Timothy to “bear your share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God.” We are encouraged to do the same.

UPDATE: See the comment below from a reader about the authorship of the Second Letter to Timothy.

The Love That Converts Us

Today is the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle. This is an event with which we are all familiar. Paul (then Saul), a persecutor of Christians, is on his way to Damascus when “a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him.” At that, Saul falls to the ground and hears a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” When he asks who is speaking to him, he hears, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Jesus continues with instructions, which Saul follows.

What is it about the appearance of Jesus that converts Saul from his life of persecuting Christians to becoming one of the great preachers of Christianity. Heather King offers this thought,

Christ never cuts us down with a gun or sword. He looks at us with love….He looks us in the eye with love and says, “Why are you persecuting me?”

To be forgiven when we know we don’t “deserve” to be forgiven is radically transformative in a way violence can never be. To be forgiven does another kind of violence: to our whole tit-for-tat notion of crime and punishment. To be forgiven makes us realize that, unbelievable as it may seem, God needs us for something. We have a mission.

In Jesus words, Paul hears, not condemnation, but love and forgiveness. And in that look and voice of love and forgiveness is invitation – invitation to conversion, to transformation. Invitation to mission.

As it was for Paul, the invitation is there for each of us.

The Star of My Life Is Not Me

Wednesday evening faith formation at St. Thomas Apostle begins with dinner followed by a communal prayer service. The gathering song for the prayer last nigth was I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light.

The second and third sentences of the song go, “God set the starts to give light to the world. The star of my life is Jesus.”

Given the context, the intended meaning of “The star of my life is Jesus,” is that Jesus guides my way. That Jesus lights the way for us: walking as a child of light is walking in the light of Jesus. That is all true enough and important enough.

But as I heard the line sung last nigth, “Jesus is the star of my life,” I heard it as “star” in the sense of leading role. The star of my life is Jesus. As I heard those word sung, I was almost startled by the realization that I am not the star of my own life. In my own life, I’m only the supporting actress – the starring role is held by Jesus. (I can see the headlines: “The Life of Susan, starring Jesus.”)

The star of my life is Jesus. That is, at one and the same time, an awesome and humbling thought.

Of course, the temptation for supporting actors and actresses is to try to steal center stage, to try to make themselves the star. And so it is with us – that we sometimes (often?) forget that the star of our lives is Jesus. When we push him out of the way to make ourselves the star, well – the story just doesn’t play as well as it should.

No Longer I

We are all familiar with Paul’s claim in Galatians that “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” It is one of those line that expresses simply and beautifully my aspiration, and so I was touched the other day when someone posted this piece from Max Lucado, Next Door Savior. It gives beautiful content to Paul’s line:

To have my voice, but Him speaking
My Steps, but Christ leading
My heart, but His love beating
in me, through me, with me
What’s it like to have Christ on the inside?

To tap His strength when mine expires
or feel the force of heaven’s fires
raging, purging wrong desires
Could Christ become my entire self?

So much Him, so little me
that in my eyes it’s Him they see
What’s it like to a Mary be?
No longer I, but Christ in me.

The lines offer both a nice reflection on aspiration and a tool for an examen as we look back over this past week and consider where I have and have not been “so much Him, so little me.”

Pope Benedict on the Infancy Narratives

I just finished reading Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, the final installment of Pope Benedict’s three-volume book series on Jesus. Here, as the name suggests, his focus is on the Gospel accounts of the birth and early days of Jesus.

There is much in the book worth reflecting on. Among the most important is something we see played out in so many ways in the infancy narratives, “the paradoxical element in God’s way of acting…greatness emerges from what seems in earthly terms small and insignificant, while worldly greatness collapses and falls.” At various points the Pope highlights examples of this in the Gospel accounts, starting with the announcement of Jesus’ birth to an unknown young woman in an unknown small dwelling in an unknown small town, and ending with the Magi, who find Jesus not in the King’s palace, but in a small home.

Just as God works in ways that seem surprising to us given the standards of the world, so, too, must we abandon worldly ideas of what constitutes greatness. At one point in the book, Pope Benedict observes that “one aspect of becoming a Christian is having to leave behind what everyone else thinks and wants, the prevailing standards, in order to enter the light of the truth of our being, and aided by that light to find the right path.”

Another point in the book crucial to our understanding of both God and our role in the world is the Pope’s discussion of the interrelationship between grace and freedom. He begins by talking about the two extreme positions: first, “the idea of the absolutely exclusive action of God, in which everything depends on his predestination,” and second, “a moralizing position, according to which everything is ultimately decided through the good will of the human person.”

Neither of those extremes is correct. Instead, “the overall testimony of Scripture” makes clear that grace and freedom “are thoroughly interwoven, and we cannot unravel their interrelatedness into clear formulae.” God loves first, but we are free to love in return or to refuse God’s love. It is God’s plan to save, but he asks Mary’s consent to participate in his plan; “the only way he can redeem man, who was created free, is by means of a free ‘yes’ to his will.”

There are many other things I liked about the book: the discussion of the joy and of hope, the way the Pope talks about our response to that which we cannot understand, and the challenge to “make haste…where the things of God are concerned.”

I was less impressed with the book’s tremendous concern with establishing that the events contained in Matthew and Luke’s narratives were historical rather than theological. My reaction to his efforts to refute those who see things like the virgin birth, the census and the visit of the Magi as theological stories reminded me of my reaction in my college Problem of God course to various “proofs” of the existence of God: wholly unnecessary to those who already are convinced and completely unpersuasive to those who aren’t.

With respect to the last of those examples – the Magi, Benedict quotes Jean Danielou as “rightly” observing that the adoration of the Magi “does not touch upon any essential aspect of our faith. No foundations would be shaken if it were simply an invention of Matthew’s based on a theological idea.” (Danielou, nonetheless, concludes that this event was historical.) Many might have the same reaction to some of the other things the Pope is concerned with proving the historicity of.

Whatever one thinks of the literal truth of the stories in the infancy narratives, there is much to reflect on in this book.