Thursday, September 4, 2014

I Have Nothing But Gratitude

So today is my tenth anniversary of ordination. I find myself quite at a loss for words, uncharacteristically, and can only say that I have a heart full of nothing but gratitude to God for allowing me to be in this most sublime and awesome vocation. Thank you, God.

Probably my lack of words is also connected to the fact that this is my last blog post for a couple of weeks, as I depart on my annual vacation tomorrow. Blogging will resume as normal on September 21.

Meanwhile, since I am a man without words today, here are some things I’ve written in the past on priesthood and my own call to it that say what I would say if I had anything to say!

Here are my thoughts on the day I was ordained.

And here are my reflections on Catherine Doherty’s sense of the priesthood.

Here are my reflections, with Pope Francis, on being a minister of God’s mercy.

Finally, here is what I believe it is all about, not only priesthood, but life in Christ, and it is to this reality and this mystery that my life is pledged, poor enough job that I make of it most of the time.

And so, besides those four last words (for now), I leave you with one of my favorite choral pieces which expresses what is really in my heart ten years later. ‘Praise the name of the Lord, praise the Lord, you servants of His, alleluia.’

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Walking By Starlight

With a hymn composed in the eighth or ninth century, thus for over a thousand years, the Church has greeted Mary, the Mother of God, as “Star of the Sea”: Ave maris stella.
Human life is a journey. Towards what destination? How do we find the way? Life is like a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we watch for the stars that indicate the route. The true stars of our life are the people who have lived good lives. They are lights of hope.

Certainly, Jesus Christ is the true light, the sun that has risen above all the shadows of history. But to reach him we also need lights close by—people who shine with his light and so guide us along our way. Who more than Mary could be a star of hope for us? With her “yes” she opened the door of our world to God himself; she became the living Ark of the Covenant, in whom God took flesh, became one of us, and pitched his tent among us (cf. Jn 1:14).
Spe Salvi 49

Reflection – With this entry I will have now successfully blogged the entire encyclical Spe Salvi,  on the salvific nature of hope. I’ve taken this last week or so to revisit and finish my blogging on this encyclical because it seemed timely. The world is in some very difficult and sad times—yesterday’s second beheading of an American journalist is one more movement towards what seems almost certainly a renewed military engagement in Iraq, and of course that is only one small corner of the world that is in great turmoil and distress—Eastern Europe and Western Africa are in sore need of prayer and aid now, too.

The sea of history is indeed ‘dark and stormy’ and it is all too easy to lose sight of the destination of the journey in these times. The passions—anger and avarice, gluttony and lust, despondency and sloth, pride and vainglory—all too easily beckon us when the world is in turmoil. They seem to offer us a way through these dark stormy waters, but to what end?

We can strike out against our enemies in anger, tightly cling to our own wealth, drown ourselves in physical pleasures, collapse into despair, or exert our mastery to put everyone else underneath us—but to what final end? What good is it, indeed, to gain the whole world and lose one’s soul?
And so we have the stars of hope, the light shed by the saints in glory, and above all by the great Mother of God who lights the path to the true end of humanity. It is so crucial in these days when the world does seem to be blowing up just a bit (and, we’ll see, perhaps quite a lot), to know that this world and our life in this world, good and precious as it is, is not the destination of the journey, not our ultimate home.

‘The true stars of our lives are people who have led good lives.’ What a lovely and simple sentence to explain the devotion to the saints which has been part of the life of the Church since its very beginning. This is why it is so important to read the saints and know something of their lives, the choices they made, the sufferings they endured, and what it was all about for them. So many genuinely foolish mistakes about Christianity and what it means to live as a Christian in the world would be avoided if we would let ourselves be taught by our betters, the men and women who have done this thing, lived this life, and whose lives serve as brilliant guides to us along the ways of the world.

Mary is supreme among the saints. She shows us that, no matter what the circumstances of our lives, no matter what is going on around us, inside us, in our world and in our own little worlds, the road to the good end of life is the road of fiat, of faith, of humble obedience to God. That the whole purpose of God in creation and in humanity is to make of us an open door for Himself to enter in, that the world’s salvation and ours does not come through human power and mastery, not by violence and not by sensuality, but through the work of God transforming our flesh into His, our lives into His, our humanity into His divinity, as His Spirit overshadows us as it did Her.

Our Lady is the star shining brightly in all the world showing us that this is the path of life and that it leads to a brilliant and glorious end. I don’t know what the great political and (possibly) military solutions are to the very real problems we are facing in the world today. I do know that we haven’t a chance of finding our way through these times if each of us personally does not set our course by the stars of hope the Lord has laid out in the heavens for us, and that the true way of peace in the world comes only through walking the path God opened up for us and that Our Lady reveals to us in its fullness and its beauty.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Losing Hope, and Finding It

For prayer to develop this power of purification, it must on the one hand be something very personal, an encounter between my intimate self and God, the living God. On the other hand it must be constantly guided and enlightened by the great prayers of the Church and of the saints, by liturgical prayer, in which the Lord teaches us again and again how to pray properly.
Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, in his book of spiritual exercises, tells us that during his life there were long periods when he was unable to pray and that he would hold fast to the texts of the Church's prayer: the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the prayers of the liturgy. Praying must always involve this intermingling of public and personal prayer.
This is how we can speak to God and how God speaks to us. In this way we undergo those purifications by which we become open to God and are prepared for the service of our fellow human beings. We become capable of the great hope, and thus we become ministers of hope for others. Hope in a Christian sense is always hope for others as well. It is an active hope, in which we struggle to prevent things moving towards the “perverse end”. It is an active hope also in the sense that we keep the world open to God. Only in this way does it continue to be a truly human hope.
Spe Salvi 34
Reflection – We jump ahead in our reading of Spe Salvi now to the section on prayer. I have now done almost the entire encyclical on this blog now, and the whole thing can be found here.

The power of purification in prayer that Pope Benedict writes about here is explained beautifully in the previous paragraph: “When we pray properly we undergo a process of inner purification which opens us up to God and thus to our fellow human beings as well. In prayer we must learn what we can truly ask of God—what is worthy of God. We must learn that we cannot pray against others. We must learn that we cannot ask for the superficial and comfortable things that we desire at this moment—that meager, misplaced hope that leads us away from God. We must learn to purify our desires and our hopes. We must free ourselves from the hidden lies with which we deceive ourselves.”

The Cardinal Van Thuan he refers to here was the Archbishop of Saigon when it fell to the Viet Cong, who spent 20 years imprisoned by them, much of it in solitary confinement. He is the great apostle of hope in our times, and should be much more well known than he is. His books Testimony to Hope and The Road to Hope are modern spiritual classics. 

Deprived of his ability to function as a bishop, only able to even celebrate Mass with great difficulty and at great risk, and with little prospect of ever seeing the world outside his prison, he chose to simply live as a Christian within the circumstances he had been given. He strove to love the only neighbors the Lord had provided him with—his jailors. And he strove to pray as best he could each day, and in so doing to deeply entrust his life to the Lord each day. He emerged from his long imprisonment a man transfigured by grace, and ended his years in Rome, a living witness to the power of Christ to redeem the worst and most hopeless situations.

And so we need to really apply this to ourselves, don’t we? Most of us are not so badly off as Cardinal Van Thuan (well, really all of us, since anyone reading this blog post is not languishing in solitary confinement as a victim of religious persecution). But we all can choose to in some way or other lose hope, to focus on those elements of our life that are difficult or painful, that do not seem to be conducive to health and happiness. We can all choose to turn from God, stop praying, despair in His power to redeem our situation. We can all be so sure that the only way we can become joyful is if the painful and difficult things go away, that we miss the gift of God that He is trying to give us in the midst of these painful and difficult things.

And this is losing hope, when we are so determined to find our happiness in this life and in having things as we want them in this life. Meanwhile, God is continually opening us up to this much bigger, much deeper, much more enduring happiness. And it is prayer, the choice to perpetually and continually turn our face and our heart toward God, be it in the liturgical and Scriptural and devotional prayers we have learned or in the simple outpouring of our hearts to God, that continually purifies our hope and makes it grow stronger and more well founded.

And this is our call today—to pray and to let God purify our hearts to seek Him in whatever circumstance we are living in today, good, bad, or something in between. So, let’s get on with that.

Monday, September 1, 2014

A Psalm for the Yazidi

O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will tell of your wonderful deeds.
I will be glad and exult in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.

When my enemies turned back, they stumbled and perished before you.
For you have maintained my just cause; you have sat on the throne giving righteous judgment.
You have rebuked the nations, you have destroyed the wicked;
you have blotted out their name forever and ever…

The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.
And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you.
Sing praises to the Lord, who dwells in Zion. Declare his deeds among the peoples.

For he who avenges blood is mindful of them; he does not forget the cry of the afflicted.
Be gracious to me, O Lord. See what I suffer from those who hate me;
you are the one who lifts me up from the gates of death, so that I may recount all your praises, and, in the gates of daughter Zion, rejoice in your deliverance…

The wicked shall depart to Sheol, all the nations that forget God.
For the needy shall not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor perish forever.
Rise up, O Lord! Do not let mortals prevail; let the nations be judged before you.
Put them in fear, O Lord; let the nations know that they are only human.

Psalm 9: 1-5, 7-14, 17-20

Reflection – This is the first time in the Monday Psalter that I cannot print the entire psalm text on the blog—Psalm 9 is just a little too long for that. This is a psalm that probably does not rank among many people’s personal favorites. At first glance it is simply a reiteration of a theme that at times gets a little monotonous in the psalms: we have enemies; God, destroy our enemies; God did destroy our enemies. Hurray! Repeat as needed.

When you pray the entire psalter, as those of who pray the full office do over a four-week period, the large number of psalms more or less taken up with these matters is a bit disconcerting. The ancient world lived in a state of perpetual warfare and constant threat of destruction. If it wasn’t the Assyrians, it was the Babylonians, and then the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans. And before all that time of imperial conquest and dominance, it was a whole era of smaller tribes continually jostling for territory and slaying each other in the process.

And the people of Israel were pretty small potatoes in all this, much more often the conquered and the slain then the victorious conquerors. So it makes sense that in their psalmody questions of the enemy and what to do with them, the crying out to God for redress and the jubilant exultation when deliverance comes all are prevalent themes.

For us, though? These psalms push us somewhere that may seem a bit alien to us. I, personally, have never had a gun pointed at me, let alone held to my head. I have never been beaten up, never been faced with real hunger, never been in fear of my life. I realize I am profoundly, deeply lucky in these matters, and that not everyone in my North American social context, let alone elsewhere, can say those things.

But we are, as a society, largely blessed with security and peace, at least compared to much of the rest of the world, much of the rest of human history. But this psalm, and such psalms, push us regardless of our own personal situation into a deep solidarity with humanity and its suffering, the anguish of the poor, the terror of the victimized and brutalized. We pray this psalm for and with the Yazidi people, for and with the kidnapped children of Nigeria, for and with all the terrorized and the refugees, the tortured and the slain.

And this particular psalm is a cry to the just God who works justice, who is the savior of His people. This too pushes us deep into the mystery of faith. God’s salvation and God’s deliverance is a mighty mysterious thing at times. Without a faith in heaven and eternal life, it is hard to see how we can pray this psalm at all—so many live and die in this world without seeing any obvious deliverance of God.

So this psalm which may not be our most beloved favorite takes us both deeply into the heart of suffering humanity, and bears us into the heart of the mystery of faith. All flesh is crying out to God for justice and salvation; all flesh yearns to see this deliverance; all flesh cries for God to rise up and raise us up with Him in the glorious victory of good over evil, love over hate, God over all. Amen.