The Strength to Offer One’s Own Life to Save that of Another

The Catholic Church today celebrates the memorial of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest who spent many years spreading Christianity in Japan and elsewhere, who was martyred by the Nazis.

Kolbe was imprisoned and suffered greatly in Auschwitz.  In the concentration camp, he took the coldest spot in the barracks, he often gave his food to those he thought needed it more, and he spent time comforting and ministering to the other prisoners.  On August 14, 1941, he offered his own life in exchange for that of another prisoner who had been selected to die as punishment for the escape of another prisoner.

I’m confident Kolbe would say that the strength and courage to accept death in place of another does not come from himself alone.  Rather, it came from his relationship to God.

Kolbe termed prayer “the best way to reestablish peace in our souls, to reach happiness, since it serves to draw us closer to God’s love.” He wrote

Prayer makes the world anew.
Prayer is the necessary condition for the rebirth and life of every soul…
By praying both with our voices and our thoughts, we shall experiences in ourselves how the immaculate gradually takes possession of our souls, how we shall belong to her every day more in every aspect of our lives, how our sins shall disappear and our faults weaken, how smoothly and powerfully we shall be drawn always closer to God.
Our external activity is all right, but, obviously, it is not as important as our spiritual life, our life of recollection, of prayer, of our personal love for God.

Maximilian Kolbe is a reminder of the strength that comes from nourishing our relationship with God.


A Tiny Whispering Sound

In her book, Experiencing God’s Tremendous Love, Sr. Maureen Conroy describes four dynamics of relational prayer: looking, sharing, listening, and responding.

Today’s first Mass reading from the First Book of Kings, one I love, speaks to the third of those: listening.  Listening is the one that I think needs special emphasis, because we too often fill our prayer with our desires and with our agenda, without given God a chance to speak to us.  We forget sometimes that prayer also means giving God a chance to get a word in edgewise.  We need under grace, to listen to God with our whole being.  We need to pause, to linger, to wait for God to speak to us.

Today’s first reading reading reminds us that while God sometimes reveals himself to us in dramatic, almost visible ways, that is typically not the norm for us.  Rather, God more often seems to speak to us in the quiet whisperings of our heart.  God tells Elijah to go outside and on the mountain and God will be passing by.  And Elijah discovers God not in the strong heavy wind, not in the earthquake or in the fire, but rather, as the scripture reads: “After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.  When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak” knowing it was God.

We need to allow ourselves the quiet and stillness to hear God no matter how softly God speaks to us.  We want to let God speak from God’s heart.  We thus come to know that mind of God.  Our relationship with God becomes more intimate as we hear God’s desire to be close to us.  We become more attentive to God’s ways and thoughts.  We “put on the mind of Christ.”


Be Clothed With Humility

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. Dominic.

Dominic began his religious life as a Benedictine and, as a Benedictine, was one of the monks assigned to combat the Albigensian heresy through prayer, fasting and instruction.  You may recall that the Albigensian error taught that there were two gods: The good god of light – Jesus in the New Testament, and the god of darkness and evil usually associated with Satan but also the God of the Old Testament.  The Albigensians considered anything material to be evil, including the body, which was created by Satan, in contrast to the good soul created by God.

Many other monks were unsuccessful in combatting this heresy; according to writings from the period, some of the monks had become worldly and even pompous in their approach, surrounding themselves with material artifacts which repulsed the Albigensians.

Dominic and his companion were austere by comparison to some of these worldly monks and this austerity and personal self discipline appealed to many of the heretics who had been deceived in their thinking. Dominic traveled throughout the region, preaching and converting many back to Catholic Christian faith and practice.

In July 1215 Dominic was granted permission to form his own religious order dedicated to promoting morality and the expulsion of heresy.  It was Pope Honorius III, who, in confirming the new order, dubbed Dominic and his followers “The Order of Preachers.”

Dominic continued to preach austerity and humility to his followers.

“Arm yourself with prayer instead of a sword; be clothed with humility instead of fine raiment.”

“These, my much loved ones, are the bequests which I leave to you as my sons; have charity among yourselves; hold fast to humility; keep a willing poverty.”

“We must sow the seed, not hoard it.”

Dominic’s is a message much needed on our world today.   Blessings on this day of his memorial.

And For All This, Nature is Never Spent

As I was walking near the lake on the retreat house grounds, enjoying the beauty around me, I was reminded of an experience I had on our recent vacation in the Canadian Maritimes.

As I’ve written before, I love Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, God’s Grandeur.  Its opening lines often come almost automatically to mind when I am in nature: The world is charged with the grandeur of God.  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.

This particular day on vacation, I had read a few too many news articles in the morning.  I can’t remember now which ones got me down – it could have been any number: immigration, the situation in Venezuela, Congress’ shenanigans with health care, a police shooting, an attack on a mosque or a church somewhere….  The point is, I was feeling quite down about the state of the world.

That day, here is where I was walking on rocks, listening to the surf, gazing at the sky.

It was gorgeous and I felt incredible peace.  And as I stood there, lines from Hopkins’ poem came unbidden to my mind.  Only this time what came to mind were the words of the final quatrain of the poem, the part that comes after the middle one that talks about men not “reck[ing] his rod,” and all wearing man’d sludge.  What came to mind, what gave me deep consolation, were these words:

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

That is a reminder I sometimes need.  It is a reminder we all need.

Herod and the Temptation of the Enemy Spirit

Here at the retreat house yesterday, I preached on Matthew’s account of the beheading of John the Baptist.

I have always found this to be a very disquieting passage, in part because of a detail we get in Mark’s account that Matthew does not.  Mark tells us that Herod knew that John was a righteous and holy man, and that, although he was often perplexed by John’s words, he liked to listen to him.  (I picture Herod, like Nicodemus sneaking off in the dead of night to speak to Jesus, going down to John’s cell when the guards were not around listening to John.)

Herod knows John to be holy and righteous, likes hearing him speak, and knows killing John would upset his followers.  Yet, he kills him anyway.  What’s up with that?

As I began my reflection by observing, one of the key meditations of Week Two of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius is the Meditation on the Two Standards.  In that exercise, Ignatius invites us to a deeper sense of both the draw of Jesus and the pull of the enemy spirit.  (Ignatius took for granted that both exist, and  whether or not one shares Ignatius’ belief in Satan, it is apparent that there is a force that pulls us away from good.  Call it, as Ignatius sometimes does, the enemy spirit.)  Ignatius wants us to reflect in the Two Standards meditation both how the enemy spirit deceives us so can guard against it, and know what it is like to live life in Christ.

Ignatius tells us that the enemy spirit tempts with longing for riches, honor, and pride, and through these entices us to all other evils.  And it is important to him that we get a clear picture of how enemy spirit works.

In my view, this is one of the very helpful Gospels in seeing how the temptation of the enemy spirit operates. Continue reading

What Does God Have in Store for Us?

Here I am again at my “happy place,” the Jesuit Retreat House in OshKosh.  Tonight we will have the opening session of the directed retreat I am on the directing team for, after which the retreatants will enter a silence that will last (apart from there daily meetings with their director) until next Wednesday morning.

The great joy of directing on these retreats is seeing how God works with each individual retreatant.  We all come on retreats with some idea of what we are hoping for, but God always exceeds our expectations, often surprising us in the process.  Being able to witness this up close and to help facilitate the encounter between God and a retreatant is an amazing privilege.

Please keep all of the retreatants – and all of us on the directing team – in your prayers.

Some pics from the retreat house:

A Treasure in a Field and A Merchant Searching for Fine Pearls

Matthew’s Gospel presents a number of the parable Jesus told in an effort to help his followers understand what he meant in talking about the kingdom of God.  Today’s Gospel reading presents two of those:

The Kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
Again, the Kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls.
When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.

I find it interesting that in the first of the two parables, the kingdom is like the treasure, not the person who finds it, whereas in the second, the kingdom is not like the pearl, but like the merchant searching for it.

It is also interesting that in the hidden treasure parable, Jesus is not saying that there is only one field, or that only one person will find the treasure and everyone else will be left out – although that is how we might think of it.

Louis Savary discusses these parables in his book, The New Spiritual Exercises: In the Spirit of Teilhard de Chardin.  He suggests that we ought ask ourselves:   Why does the person buy the whole field? And what might the whole field symbolize?  With respect to the second parable, he asks, If you were a merchant searching, what would that feel like?  If Christ were the merchant searching, what might he be searching for?

When I prayed with these two parables during a recent summer retreat, I had a series of somewhat related thoughts and questions:

In the past, I always thought of the treasure as a small thing in the middle of a big field.  But as I prayed with it this time, I saw the treasure as an underlying layer of the entire field – as hidden by the dirt on top.  So not something discreet and limited,  but expansive.

More importantly, we discover/find the Kingdom and then become part of the kingdom in our sharing.  So we are both finder of the treasure and the treasure.  While God is the source of the Kingdom and the source of us, somehow in all of this – we are an intrinsic, essential part of the spreading of kingdom.

A daunting, but empowering, thought.