Thursday, July 27, 2017

New Home for our Blog

We are happy to announce a new home for our blog. An archive of previous posts will be maintained here but all future posts will be made directly on our web site:

Integrating our blog with our main web site should provide a more organic reading experience for our site's visitors. Thanks for reading!

Friday, July 21, 2017

Letting Weeds Grow

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

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Vincent van Gogh:
Peasant woman binding sheaves
What kind of gardener lets weeds grow in their garden? A bad one, that's who. And that's the kind of gardener I am, because my garden is always overgrown with weeds this time of year. I'm a lazy gardener. I like the idea of a garden. And so every year I plant tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. I fertilize the soil. The beds look really nice at first, and I tell myself I'll keep them looking that way. But a few weeks later my garden inevitably looks like a jungle. Because I don't actually like getting out there and doing the hard work that it takes to make a garden successful. And that work involves pulling weeds.

I know this because even though I'm a bad gardener, my mother and father are wonderful gardeners. Their vegetables grow in neat, easily accessible rows with a marked absence of weeds. They work hard at it every day. It takes diligence. As soon as they see a weed sprouting up through the soil, they pull it out by the roots so that it won't grow back. Having a garden full of weeds doesn't just look bad. The weeds can choke out the good plants if left unchecked, depriving the vegetables of needed nourishment. 

This is why Jesus' parable in this Sunday's gospel reading would have raised the eyebrows of people from an agrarian society who know how to grow crops. He tells a story about a man who sows good seed in a field, but then "the enemy" comes along and sews bad seed, so that both wheat and weeds grow up together. His servants ask him if they should pull up the weeds. He says no. "Let them grow together until harvest." Then, and only then, he will gather the wheat into his barn. The weeds, he will gather to be burned.

Why would he do this? Why would the farmer in Jesus' parable let the weeds grow? It doesn't make sense, as any gardener would tell you. This would certainly seem an odd growing strategy to Jesus' listeners. 

It doesn't make sense to us, because Jesus isn't really talking about a farmer and a field of wheat and weeds. Jesus is describing the kingdom of heaven. He uses parables whenever He does this because it's impossible to describe in human language what God's kingdom truly is; so Jesus tells us what it is like using stories. Jesus explains the meaning of this particular story at the end of this reading. He is the farmer sowing the good seed. The devil is the enemy who sows the bad seed. The wheat is the children of the kingdom, and the weeds are the children of the devil. The harvest is the end of time, at which the children of the devil (the "weeds") will be gathered and burned, while the children of God (the "wheat"), will "shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father." 

I believe Jesus uses the metaphor of wheat and weeds growing together in a field to help us appreciate that God's ways are not our ways. As it says in Isaiah 55:8-9, "As the heavens are far above the earth, so far above our ways are His." We would never let weeds grow in our garden (unless you are a bad gardener, like me). God is certainly not a bad gardener. He knows what He is doing. So why does He allow the weeds to grow, if they are just going to be burned at harvest time? Why risk them choking out the good wheat?

What we are really asking is, why does God allow evil people to persist in their evil? Why doesn't God smite the sinner, to prevent him or her from doing any more harm to the kingdom? 

Because unlike wheat and weeds, saints and sinners are not two different types of thing. A weed is never going to magically transform into a stalk of wheat. When I look into my tomato garden, I can tell by looking at a plant whether or not it's a tomato. If it isn't, I know it is not going to become one, so I yank it up (or would, if I weren't such a lazy gardener). 

But when God looks and you and I, he doesn't see either a saint or a sinner. He sees a person who has the potential to be either.

He sees, first and foremost, a creature whom He loves. Always remember this. God would not have made you if He did not first love you. You are here on this earth for only one reason, and it is because God delights in your existence. God loves you. Your task is to love God in return, and learn to love what God loves, which is first and foremost your fellow human beings. This is how one becomes a saint. This is what God intended when He planted that good seed which is you.

But the enemy is also active in the field, planting bad seeds. The devil plants the seeds of selfishness in our hearts, the seeds of greed, sloth, despair, and disordered desire. When these things take root in us, we become like weeds. And weeds are useless. They aren't good for anything except being yanked up by the roots, gathered and burned.

But not yet. And this is the good news. Jesus doesn't pull up the weeds. He lets them grow. He lets them grow because He is hopeful that the weeds in his field will yet become wheat. And so He waits patiently until the time of harvest.

Our first reading from Wisdom reminds us that the Lord governs us with leniency, He gives His children ground for hope, and He permits repentance for our sins (Wis 12:16-19).  God allows weeds to become wheat. He provides the grace to make that happen.

And so He waits.

Eventually the harvest time will come. Eventually the time for repentance will run out. At that time, our fate will be sealed. Jesus is quite clear on this point. Either we will be thrown into the fiery furnace where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth, or we will shine like the sun in the kingdom of our Father. Given the choice, who wouldn't choose the latter?

We all say we want to go to heaven, but many of us, if we are honest, have to admit that we don't live that way. There are souls that are prideful; that do not realize they are weeds. They think they are fine how they are and refuse to change. They are not humble enough to ask for God's mercy. One the other end of the spectrum, there are souls that are despairing. They see their sinfulness and think there is no way out. They know they are weeds, and don't believe that can ever change. They can't see how God could love a weed.

I'm here to tell you, God loves the weeds. That's why He lets them grow. 

The harvest will come. There will come a day when it is too late to repent of your sins and your final destiny will be set. You will forever be either weed burning in the fire, or wheat gathered in the Father's barn for all eternity. But that day is not today. Today is an opportunity for repentance. Today God offers mercy. Today God is letting you grow. Whether you grow into wheat or into a weed is up to you.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Whoever Has Ears Ought to Hear

15th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

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. K. Chesterton is one of the most quoted Catholic writers of the twentieth century. He seems to have an applicable quote for every occasion. In his collection of essays, Tremendous Trifles, he writes, "The object of my school is to show how many extraordinary things even a lazy and ordinary man may see if he can spur himself to the single activity of seeing."

Chesterton was not speaking about the physical act of seeing, but the inward act of understanding and appreciating what one sees. A small number of us are truly blind in the physical sense. Most of us have healthy eyes, but walk by amazing sights every day without really comprehending what our eyes are telling us. When we finally see the things we have been looking at all along, we might be inclined to pause, take a breath, and say, "Oh, I see..."

In this Sunday's gospel, Jesus tells us the Parable of the Sower. Some of the sower's seed falls on the bare path where it is eaten by birds, some falls on rocky soil and cannot establish roots, and some falls among thorns which choke out their growth. But some of the seed falls on fertile ground and grows well. In each case the seed is the same; only the ground is different.

Jesus tells us that this parable describes different responses to hearing the "word of the kingdom" (Mt 13:19). Even though we all may hear the word of God, there are distractions that may prevent us from allowing the word to take root in our hearts and bear fruit. These are the world, the flesh, and the devil, represented here by the path, the rocky soil, and the thorns.

Jesus does not always take the time to explain the meaning of His words. A prime example would be the Bread of Life discourse in the sixth chapter of John, when the majority of His followers leave after being told they must eat His flesh and drink His blood. He says what He needs to say and then leaves it to His disciples (us) to hear Him and understand. But here He explains the meaning of His words in plain language. It is almost as if Christ is saying, "People will either hear what I am saying or they won't. It doesn't matter how plainly I explain it; if they are not really listening, they won't understand."

He quotes the prophet Isaiah: "They look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand." But to the faithful disciples, He says, "But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear."

The sower casts his seed upon all terrains, but only in some did it take root. Jesus speaks His words in public, for all to hear, but only some were willing to listen.  God offers the gift of faith to all, but only some are willing to receive it.

The Catechism defines faith as, "Both a gift of God and a human act by which the believer gives personal adherence to God... and freely assents to the whole truth that God has revealed." How can faith be a free gift from God but also something we humans have to do? Does God give faith only to some people and not others? If I am struggling with my faith does that mean God has't given me enough? These are honest questions. It can be a bit confusing to be told that faith is a gift from God and at the same time our response to God.

This is where the parable of the sower helps. Just as the sower casts the same seed on all grounds, God gives the same gift of faith to all of us. But for the seed is to take root, grow, and bear fruit, it must have fertile soil. That is our part. The fertile soil is our act of faith, allowing God's word to take root in our heart. There are many things that can keep us from doing that. We could not be open to hearing the word at all. We could hear it, but be anxious or fearful to fully open our lives to it. Or we could allow the many distractions of this world to crowd it out.

Everyone in the crowd heard Jesus preach this parable. But only a few understood because only a few were truly open to listening to the Word of God. Some were made deaf by cynicism, or concern for things of this world, or attachment to sin. Others were willing to hear the word of God and follow through, even if it meant a radical change in their lives. This is a necessary condition of faith -- to be open to seeing what God is showing you, and hearing His word, and then following where He leads. 

Open your eyes to see His beauty. Open your hears to hear His wisdom. And prepare your heart to be rich and fruitful soil, where His gift of faith can take root and prosper. For "the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold" (Mt 13:23).

G. K. Chesterton said it is amazing what ordinary people can see if they decide to start seeing. We can also say it is amazing what ordinary people can hear if they decide to start listening. Let us set ourselves to this task; the wonderful task of seeing and hearing the spirit of God active in our lives.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Flesh & Spirit

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

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St. Paul frequently speaks negatively about the flesh in his writings. The second reading this Sunday offers one such example. Paul reminds the Christians in Rome that they are not in the flesh, but in the spirit; and that they should not "live according to the flesh," and if they do they will die (Rom 8:9-13). 

Is the flesh bad? Does following St. Paul's instruction mean that we have to live strict lives of asceticism, marked by severe fasting and self-denial? Must we all wear hair shirts and sleep on stone slabs? Does salvation consist in liberating our pure souls from our corrupt mortal bodies? 

Not at all.

St. Paul is no Gnostic. Gnosticism was an early Christian heresy that in many ways survives to this day, in certain attitudes, if not in name. Gnosticism was a pluralistic belief system, borrowing elements from other religions, including Christianity. But at its core was a dualistic understanding of the universe. Gnostics believed in two gods: a good god, associated with light and spirit; and an evil god associated with darkness, physical creation, and the body. The human person, according to Gnostic belief, was a good soul trapped in an evil body. Gnostics claimed to have a secret knowledge that would free the soul from the body (giving them their name, from gnosis, the Greek word for "knowledge"). 

Different Gnostic sects took these ideas to various extremes. Some practiced strict asceticism, denying their bodies of any and all sensual pleasures in an attempt to live purely spiritual lives. Few signed up for this form of Gnosticism. The more popular sects were hedonistic, operating on the assumption that since the body is evil it doesn't matter what you do with it, so you might as well have a good time! These Gnostics were much more successful in making converts. 

Any and all forms of Gnosticism were condemned by the Church in no uncertain terms. Firstly because the Gnostic understanding of God is so wrong: there are not two gods, but one God, who is totally and perfectly good. But Gnosticism also has a very incorrect understanding of the human person. Human beings are not good souls trapped in evil bodies. Human beings consist of spiritual souls and physical bodies joined together in one person. This means that our bodies are just as much a part of us as our souls

Our bodies are part of our humanity, and therefore they are fundamentally good. At the end of the sixth day of creation, after God made man, He looked upon His creation and pronounced it good -- body, soul and all. Human beings are not evil, but we are fallen, which means we are capable of doing evil things.

This is what St. Paul is referring to when he instructs us not to live according to the flesh. "Flesh," the way Paul uses the word, does not refer to our physical bodies as much as it refers to the human condition after the fall.  

After the original sin of Adam and Eve, our primordial friendship with God was broken. We lost the supernatural grace God originally bestowed upon the human race. The consequences of the fall are many. Our bodies are corruptible and subject to death and decay. Our minds have been darkened, our intellect no longer able to perceive the truth as clearly as we ought to. Our wills have been weakened, so that we are no longer able to obey God without the gift of His grace. And we suffer from concupiscence, which is a word that means "an inclination to sin." All of this Paul neatly summarizes by the single word "flesh."

When St. Paul tells warns us not to live according to the flesh, he is not telling us to deny our bodies because they are evil. He is telling us not to live according to our fallen human nature apart from Christ - because that way of life is futile and cannot save us.

He begins this passage by reminding the Romans that they are in the spirit because the Spirit of God dwells in them. They have been baptized. They have put on Christ. St. Paul says elsewhere of his own baptism that "it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me" (Gal 2:20).  We who have been baptized are no longer "debtors to the flesh." That is to say, our fallen human nature no longer holds sway over us. We are no longer destined to the death promised by the fall. But if we live as if we were still in our fallen state, following only after the base and selfish desires of our animal impulses, then we will die -- spiritually as well as physically.

But if we live according to the Spirit -- "the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead" -- then that same Spirit will give life to our mortal bodies also. Far from condemning our physical bodies as evil and corrupt, Paul says that if we live according to Christ our bodies will rise to everlasting life! We will have glorified bodies for all eternity in heaven! 

The Christian faith, we must always remember, is incarnational. That word comes from the Latin word carne, which means "flesh." When we say the Son of God became incarnate, we mean that He took on human flesh. God, from that moment forward for all eternity, has a body made of human flesh. God thought the human body was so good, so worth redeeming, that He went and got one for Himself! How could we dare to think of our bodies as something evil!?

This incarnational attitude is reflected throughout our faith. This is why we revere Mary, because hers was the body through which God took His own body. This is why we sculpt statues and paint icons, why we burn candles and incense, ring bells and chant psalms. Through the incarnation, the things of this world have been made holy. Nowhere is this realized more than in the sacraments, which are visible signs of God's invisible grace transmitted to us through the physical things of this world. 

We must be careful. Just because our physical bodies have been redeemed doesn't mean everything we do with our bodies is good and holy. We are still capable of sin. We still face temptation. We must avoid vice and illicit carnal pleasure, which is why St. Paul's warning not to "live according to the flesh" is as relevant now as it was when it was first written. 

We are not Gnostics of either variety. We cannot do anything we want with our bodies just because it feels good -- gluttony, drunkeness, and fornication are all sins St. Paul specifically condemns in no uncertain terms. We must treat our bodies with respect, because they are good and our bodies matter. Some things may feel good to our bodies but are harmful to our spirits, and therefore we must not do them.

But neither are we extreme ascetics. Catholics can and should enjoy in moderation the good things in life. We can enjoy licit pleasures of the flesh (and there are many) because licit pleasures are good for the spirit. We sing. We dance. We enjoy good food and drink. We are moved by symphonies and sunsets. As the early 20th century writer Hilaire Belloc quipped, "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, there's always laughter and good red wine!"