Friday, July 29, 2016

Is Life a Vanity?


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Vanitas, by Jan Sanders van Hemessen
Peter Kreeft calls the book of Ecclesiastes "the greatest of all books of philosophy" and "the only book of pure philosophy in the Bible."  It's also the most depressing book in the Bible, which leads some to wonder what it's doing there in the first place.  It's the only book in the Bible that does not mention God.

Nevertheless, Ecclesiastes teaches us about God in the same way that droughts teach us about water, or death teaches us about life.  Ecclesiastes is all about meaninglessness, and so has much to teach us about meaning.

All of our readings for this Sunday touch on this notion of vanity, that there is no meaning to our existence.  Ecclesiastes says, "All things are vanity!" (Ecc 1:2).  Our psalm compares us to grass which springs anew in the morning, but by evening wilts and fades (Ps 90).  Jesus tells us a parable of a man who amasses much wealth, but who will die before he can enjoy any of it (Lk 12:13-21).

The philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote in Pensées, "the end is dreary, however fine the rest of the play.  They put a little dirt over your head, and that is the end, forever.  That is the end awaiting the world's most illustrious life."

If this is true, if this is all we can look forward to and life has no greater meaning, then nothing we do has any meaning, either.  And if nothing we do has meaning, that means one of two things. We could say, "why bother doing anything?" and fall into slothful depression.  Or we can say, "Why not do everything?" and fall into lust, greed and gluttony.  

Satre said that, "The existentialist... thinks it very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears with Him."  Depression.  Hopelessness.

Dostoyevski said, "If God didn't exist, everything would be permissible."  Hedonism. Anarchy.

Ecclesiastes shows us what the world looks like without God, and this is why it is one of the most depressing, but also one of the most important books in the Bible.  The existence of God is the central fact of reality, and Ecclesiastes shows us what we can expect if we get that fact wrong.  Without God, we can hope for nothing.

This is why St. Paul exhorts those of us who are in Christ to stay focused on "what is above" and not the things of this earth (Col 3:1).  The things of this earth, as nice as they may be, ultimately can offer us nothing.  Nothing lasting, at any rate.  Nothing that will pass into eternity.  

Jesus reminds us poignantly that our life is not given meaning by our possessions.  The rich man in the parable amassed a lot of wealth, but was able to take none of it with him when he died.  His fate was the same as that of the pauper.  "Naked I came from my mother's womb and naked I shall return" (Job 1:21).

Only that which is eternal can offer meaning for us.  This is why our acknowledgement of God matters.  This is why having an active relationship with God matters.  Because God offers the meaning that we seek in all other aspects of our lives.

The psalmist prays to God, "Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart" (Ps 90:12).  We will all meet the same end as the man in Jesus' parable.  We will all end up buried in the ground, with our possessions (few or many) left behind, unable to give us any comfort.  This is not the measure of our life.  

God teaches us how to truly measure our lives.  Did we cloth the naked?  Did we feed the hungry?  Did we care for the sick and imprisoned?  Did we love our neighbor?  Were we patient?  Were we kind?  Did we keep the commandments?  Did we forgive?  Did we ask for forgiveness?  Did we give thanks?  Did we love God with all our heart?

None of these things matter if there is no God to give them meaning.  But with God, they are the only things that mean anything at all.  This is the wisdom we pray for in the psalm -- to discern, in the light of Christ, that which has meaning, and that which is vanity; and to seek after that meaning, with Christ as our guide, all the days of our life.      

Friday, July 22, 2016

What's the Point of Prayer?


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What is the point of prayer?  What are we trying to accomplish when we pray?  I would venture that the most common form of prayer is petition. The very word means "to ask."  "I pray thee" in Shakespeare's English means, "I ask you."

Very often when we pray to God we ask for things.  Help me pass this exam.  Help me to find a boyfriend/girlfriend.  Please give me a good job when I graduate.  Please heal grandma's cancer.

We want God to give us what we want.  We want Him to do this thing for us that we desire.  Sometimes we even try bargaining with God -- "God, if you fix this problem, I promise I'll never _____ again!"

Now that sounds silly when you think about it.  Who are we to change God's mind about anything?  God is all-knowing.  God is all-powerful.  God is author of Creation. What makes us think that we could change His mind on our behalf about anything?

But isn't that just what Abraham does in our first reading this Sunday?  God is going to destroy the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah for the sinfulness of their inhabitants.  But Abraham prays to God and seemingly convinces God to spare the towns.  Didn't Abraham just change God's mind?

Jesus tells us in this Sunday's gospel that "everyone who asks, receives" (Lk 11:10).  Elsewhere Jesus says that if any two agree on what they ask for, God will do it (Mt 18:19).  People can and do read verses like this and mistakenly presume that prayer is about convincing God to do what you want Him to do for you.  Prayer is about manipulating God's will.  It's about changing God's mind.

But that would be a gross misreading of the sacred scriptures.  It is bad theology.  And it can lead to a loss of faith.  What if I pray to pass my exam, but I fail (because why bother studying, if God is listening to my prayer)?  What if I ask God to heal grandma's cancer, and she dies?  Did God not hear my prayer?  If two Christians agree to pray for world peace and it doesn't result in an immediate cessation of all war, does that mean Jesus lied to us?  Is God just a fairy tale?

Prayer is not about changing God's mind or conforming His will to our wishes.  Prayer is ultimately about changing ourselves, conforming our will to correspond to the mind of God.

When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, He gives them the example of the Lord's prayer.  He teaches us to pray for the coming of God's kingdom.  He teaches us to pray that God's will be done.  And He teaches us to pray for their daily bread -- to ask God for the good things we need each day.

Jesus says, "What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg?  If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?"

Jesus is talking about fish, eggs, and the Holy Spirit -- all good things.  But what if a child asks for a snake or a scorpion?  What good father would give his child poison, even when that child asks for it.  In his youthful ignorance, the child may sincerely believe the poison to be a good thing, and may be mad at his father for saying no.  But a loving father will say no.

So if God already knows what is good for us, why bother to pray at all?  This question still presumes that prayer is about convincing God to give us things.  We don't pray to change God, we pray to change ourselves.  We pray because it is good for us.  Prayer helps us to foster the right sort of attitude about the gifts God gives us, helps us to recognize them as gifts, and to be thankful for them.  Prayer helps us to learn to seek the good, to seek out God's will, and to learn to desire that which He desires for us.  Prayer helps us learn to want and ask for eggs and not scorpions.

If we conform our will to God's, so that we desire what Jesus desires for us, then we will receive everything we ask for in prayer.  Because we will have learned to ask for and to receive humbly everything God wills for our good.  This is why we pray in the Lord's prayer, "Thy will be done."

This is what we see going on with Abraham in our first reading.  Abraham doesn't "change God's mind," even though that is what a surface reading looks like.  What Abraham asks for is something God is already desirous to give -- he asks for mercy.   The lesson learned in this reading is not learned by God.  The lesson is learned by Abraham and by us.  We learn that God desires mercy and repentance, not condemnation.  We learn that God wants us to intercede for mercy toward others.

Don't be afraid to pray for help with that exam, for guidance in your relationships, and for loved ones who are ill or suffering.  Bring your needs and concerns to God in prayer.  But pray always that God's will be done.  Pray for the grace to desire what God desires.  And accept with thanksgiving the way and manner in which God answers your prayers, which can so often be a mystery to us.

Pray with a mind open to receive God's wisdom, and a heart open to receive His love.  Pray intentionally each day with the purpose of being formed in the image of Christ.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Better Part


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Saints Mary & Martha of Bethany
When we hear the story of Jesus visiting the home of Mary and Martha (Lk 10:38-42), we tend to think of it as a rebuke of Martha.  The story is familiar to most Christians. Martha is "burdened with much serving."  The gospel doesn't go into details, but we might imagine her in the kitchen preparing a meal, or cleaning up afterwards.  While she does these things, her sister Mary sits beside Jesus and listens to Him speak.

When Martha complains that Mary hasn't done anything to help her, Jesus gently admonishes her by saying, "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" (Lk 10:41-42).  

We like to read this as a rebuke of Martha's concern for practical matters.  Because Mary "has chosen the better part," then the choice to be like Martha must be bad.  Martha has done wrong by working in the kitchen to make sure her guests were well fed and cared for.  Martha was wrong to worry about household chores such as cleaning and cooking.  We should all strive to be like Mary, and not like Martha.

But we can miss something by reading this account as a total rebuke of Martha.  We can miss the fact that Martha, too, is a saint.  

St. Mary and St. Martha of Bethany are venerated together in the Christian world, both revered for their holiness.  Like all saints, both show us the way along the path of perfection.  Both provide models of Christian life for us to emulate.  

There is a tradition in the Church of viewing Martha and Mary as allegories of the two aspects of spiritual life -- active and contemplative.  Both are necessary, but one, the contemplative, can be described as "the better part."  This is not because the active life is bad. But the contemplative aspect of the spiritual life is more directly attentive to that which is divine and eternal.  It is focused on what will not pass away, whereas the active life deals with things of a temporal nature.  The active life feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, visits the imprisoned and the infirm.  These things are all good and praiseworthy.  In fact Jesus tells us that at the Last Judgment our fate will be determined by whether we did those very things (Mt 25:31-46).  But these things, necessary as they are, will pass away.

Eventually, there will be no more hungry mouths to feed.  There will be no more homeless in need of shelter, no more naked in need of clothing.  There will be only God in heaven, His angels and saints adoring in the eternal glory of the beatific vision.  The contemplative life foreshadows that reality in this world.  This is why it is "the better part."  This is why those who dedicate themselves to the contemplative life -- especially those in religious orders -- are so honored in the Church.  They live their lives in the light of eternity.  

But we are not in eternity yet, which is why the active life is necessary.  It is why we need St. Marthas who are concerned for our temporal needs.  Even those in monastic orders who spend most of their time in contemplative prayer must still work to put food on the table.  The famous motto of the Benedictine order is Ora et Labora, "Prayer and Work."  Someone has to tend the garden. Someone has to prepare the meals.  Someone has to do the laundry.  Someone has to sweep the floor. Rather than being a distraction from prayer, these chores can themselves be a form of prayer that contributes to spiritual growth.  

Jesus does not rebuke Martha for cooking the food or cleaning the dishes.  He rebukes Martha for being "worried and anxious." While Mary's attention is focused on Jesus, Martha's attention has become focused, in a negative way, on Mary. She complains to Jesus, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?" (Lk 10:40).  One can imagine Martha's resentment building as she worked, thinking negatively about her sister, and perhaps growing envious of her.  She allowed herself to be concerned with what she thought her sister should have been doing instead of being concerned with her own behavior and attitude.  

Any time we become judgmental of others, we are not focusing on Christ and our own special relationship with Him.  This was the cause of Jesus' admonition of Martha; not her attentiveness to her guests' material needs.  

Imagine what it would be like to prepare a meal for Jesus!  What an honor that would be!  How lovingly would you cut the fish and bread; with what care would you bring the pot to a boil; with what affection would you place the morsels on the plate.  Even the most mundane activities of our day can become occasions of grace if we do them lovingly for the Lord.

Whether God is calling you to a life of contemplation in a religious order, or a more active life in the world, as a married or single person, your spiritual life is going to have active and contemplative elements.  You will need to be like Mary and Martha.  There is no escaping the need for labor.  As a college student, that means studying and writing papers, but also doing laundry and perhaps working at a part time job.  Later in life it may mean mopping kitchen floors and changing diapers.  You can choose to do those things with a resentful spirit, or with an attitude of love towards Christ and those you serve.  Our work can be an occasion of sin or an occasion of grace.  But there will come a day, at the end of our lives, when our work will end.

Making time to cultivate a contemplative spirit, like Mary, is necessary to help us stay mindful of what truly matters -- "the better part" -- that which can never be taken from us.  May the examples of Martha and Mary help us to live our lives on this earth in the light of eternity, the light of Jesus Christ.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Who Is My Neighbor?

Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

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The Good Samaritan by Aime Morot

In this Sunday's gospel (Lk 10:25-37) a scholar asks the most important question any of us could ever ask: "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"  No other concern could be more important than this -- how do I enter into eternity?  How do I live forever?  If we lack this one thing, then we lack everything.

Just as important as asking the right question, the scholar is asking the right person, Jesus Christ, addressing Him humbly as "teacher."  A good scholar is one who knows he has a lot to learn, and who submits himself to those who can teach him.

Jesus, the perfect teacher, doesn't give the answer directly, but rather leads the scholar to where that answer lies.  He asks him what he has read in the Law.  Our scholar knows the scriptures well -- something we all should strive to do -- and gives the correct answer, quoting the Torah: "You shall love the Lord, your God,with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself"(Deut 6:5, Lev 19:18).

The scholar gives the correct answer.  To inherit eternal life requires love of God and love of neighbor.  But then he asks a very important follow-up question.  "And who is my neighbor?"

You cannot love your neighbor unless you know who your neighbor is.  Is it the person living next door?  Are your neighbors just those whom you like and hang out with a lot?  Is it limited to your classmates, coworkers and friends?  Just how far does this concept of "neighbor" stretch?  To the whole world?  To say we are to love everyone is not very helpful.  It's difficult to love "everyone" because "everyone" is an abstract concept.  We don't love abstractions.  We love people.  So who are the people we are called to love?

Jesus' answer to this question is the parable of the Good Samaritan, which should be familiar to most all of us.  A man is attacked by robbers and is in need of help.  A priest and a Levite pass by and do nothing to aid him.  But a Samaritan sees him and offers assistance -- far more than anyone would expect.  He cleans and dresses his wounds.  He carries him to an inn and stays the night with him.  Then he pays for his room and lodging and offers to cover his expenses for as long as he needs.  The Samaritan shows him the abundance of love that Jesus wants us to offer to one another.

This parable is Jesus' answer to the scholar's question who is my neighbor.  And there is one thing you need to know to properly understand the meaning of this parable.  The Jews and Samaritans hated one another.  

While the Samaritans worshiped God and observed many of the same religious customs as the Jews, they did not follow Judaism entirely and so were considered outsiders, generally despised by the Jews.  Jewish people travelling between Judea and Galilee would take a longer route to avoid having to pass through Samaritan territory.  They were separate.  They were "other." 

Jesus, by having a Samaritan be the one to render aid to the traveler in need is offering us an important lesson.  Even one you despise or who despises you is your neighbor.

It is very easy to be nice to those who are nice to you.  It is easy to love those who love you.  It is very difficult to love those who hate you, and even more difficult still to learn to love those whom you hate.  But this is what we must do.  This is the answer to the scholar's question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Who is your neighbor?  We can certainly read the parable of the Good Samaritan and come away with a greater understanding of our duty to love those society considers outcasts -- immigrants, minorities, refugees, the homeless, and the infirm.  We can think of this in terms of social justice, and we should.  But the call to love your neighbor is more intimate than that.  It should hit us close to home.  

Your neighbor is your suite-mate who leaves nasty notes on your door.  Your neighbor is the classmate who teases you for being different.  Your neighbor is the one down the hall who spreads false gossip about you.  Your neighbor is the boyfriend or girlfriend who broke your heart.  Your neighbor is the uncompromising professor who seems to have it in for you.  Your neighbor is the mentor who let you down.  Your neighbor is the friend who wasn't there for you when you needed them.  

Who do you not get along with right now?  Whom do you harbor negative feelings for?  Whom do you seek to avoid as you walk across campus?  This is your neighbor whom you are called to love.

But that's impossible! you say.  No, it's not.  Jesus does not command the impossible of us.  You don't have to like them, or become their "bff."  But you need to love them -- this means desiring, and acting toward their good.  It means praying for them.  It means offering them help when and how they need it.  It means going beyond what you may feel compelled to do and offering an abundance of love and mercy, as the Samaritan did in the parable.  It means, above all, recognizing and loving the image of God in them.

I encourage you today to read the parable of the Good Samaritan and ask yourself who in your life may be a neighbor you have neglected to love.  And pray that God may help you to learn to love that person with a generous spirit and abundance of mercy.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

WCU Catholic Campus Minister to be Instituted as Lector

On Thursday, July 14, at the Cathedral of St. Patrick in Charlotte, I, along with the other 14 men currently in formation for the permanent diaconate will be instituted as lectors by Bishop Peter Jugis.  The Rite of Lector will be celebrated during the deacons' annual re-commitment Mass at 6:30pm.  The Mass is open to the public and anyone in the area is welcome to attend.

What is an instituted lector?  

Most people are familiar with the lector (or reader) at Mass as the one who proclaims the readings before the Gospel and who, in the absence of a deacon, leads the prayer of the faithful after the creed.  At most parishes this is done by a lay person who has received some training to proclaim the Word of God.

Properly speaking, these readers are considered "extraordinary ministers of the Word."  Just as we have extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion to help distribute the Eucharist in the absence of a sufficient number of priests or deacons, any lay person may be deputed to read at Mass in the absence of a formally instituted lector, who is considered to be an "ordinary minister of the Word."

The ministry of lector is one of the ministries men preparing for the diaconate or priesthood must receive prior to ordination. In the past, the Catholic Church had several "minor orders" that men passed through on their way to ordination.  One first received tonsure, which marked the entrance into the clerical state.  One then served successively as a porter, lector, exorcist (not the kind they make movies about), and acolyte, before entering the "major orders" of subdeacon, deacon and priest.  


In 1972 Pope Paul VI issued a motu proprio (a personal edict from the Pope) called Ministeria quaedam which removed most of these, leaving only lector and acolyte, which were now called "ministries" rather than "minor orders."  One now enters the clerical state upon ordination to the diaconate.  The 15 men currently in formation for the diaconate in our diocese will be instituted as acolytes in the summer of 2017 and, God willing, ordained deacons sometime in 2018.

In the meantime, they will begin serving the Church as instituted lectors.  The liturgical functions of the lector are outlined in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (the document in the front of the Missal that, as the name implies, gives instruction and general norms for the celebration of the Mass).
The lector is instituted to proclaim the readings from Sacred Scripture, with the exception of the Gospel. He may also announce the intentions for the Universal Prayer and, in the absence of a psalmist, recite the Psalm between the readings (GIRM 99).
An instituted lector may also carry the Book of the Gospels in the procession in the absence of a deacon, sit in the sanctuary with the other ministers during Mass, and recite the antiphons during the Entrance and at Communion (GIRM 194-198).  An instituted lector would also generally wear a distinctive vestment, such as an alb or cassock and surplice, when proclaiming the Word of God (General Introduction to the Lectionary for Mass, 54).

In addition to their liturgical function, instituted lectors also receive the responsibility from the bishop to "instruct children and adults in the faith and prepare them to receive the sacraments worthily."

Those of you familiar with our campus ministry might be wondering what the big deal is about becoming an instituted lector.  Don't I, as a campus minister, already frequently read at Mass, lead the prayers of the faithful, instruct people in the faith and prepare them to receive the sacraments?  The answer is yes, I certainly do those things, as do many other lay people in the Church serving in parishes, on college campuses, and in other environments.

But on July 14 I, with the other 14 diaconal candidates, will be instituted into a permanent ministry.  Rather than being designated to perform these functions for a time, in a certain place, instituted lectors carry this responsibility for life and may perform their function anywhere in the Roman Rite.  Thus, it is a fitting step on the way toward ordination into Holy Orders, which, like Baptism and Confirmation, leaves an indelible mark on the soul of the recipient.

Because of the importance of their ministry, instituted lectors are called to be especially devoted to the Sacred Scriptures so that they may faithfully hand on the Word of God and allow it to grow strong within their hearts and the hearts of those to whom they minister.

I ask you to join in prayer for myself and all those who are called to serve in this ministry.  From the Rite of Institution of Lectors:

Let us ask God our Father to bless these servants who have been chosen for the ministry of Lector.  Let us pray that they may be faithful to the work entrusted to them, proclaim Christ to the world, and so give glory to our Father in heaven... We ask this through Christ our Lord.  Amen.