Two Paths

Last week Jesus, in the parable of the widow and the unrighteous judge, explained to us when we should pray – constantly. Today, Jesus explains to us through another parable how we should pray. But in a more foundational sense Jesus is showing us how our relationship with the Father should be. After all, prayer is the communication in our relationship and how we talk to others is a great indicator of our relationship with them. Personal interaction, verbal and nonverbal, are inseparable actions in a relationship, and outward signs of our interior disposition.

Today’s parable leads us to some valuable realizations about both how we talk to Him (prayer) and how we act towards God’s actions to us (especially our participation in the Mass).

How we talk to Him.

Jesus gives us two examples, the first is the Pharisee, who comes not to communicate but to advertise. He comes not as a friend who desires companionship and the love that it entails; but as one who promotes his superiority. We hear ‘The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself…’ Sadly, this translation does us a disservice, it erases some of the important aspects of this parable. Since the early days of the church this line in the parable has Jesus saying: ‘The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself.’ The Pharisee is standing, (in some Spanish translations it describes his standing as standing erect, prideful) and when taken in light of his words, it indicates a conceited soul. St. Basil the Great, a father of the church who lived in the 4th century, comments on this line: ‘He says he prayed with himself, not as it were with God; for his sin of pride turned in upon himself.’ He stands in front of the altar and talks at God about himself, not with God about themselves. Though he is seemingly physically close to God (the altar in this parable); he is far removed from him in his soul. His dialogue, or rather monologue continues with how pleased he is with himself that he is so holy. St. Augustine says of this monologue: ‘He says, I am just a man; the rest of men are sinners!’ The arrogance of this monologue is stupefying, he fails to notice the plank in his eye. He spends his time patting himself on the back at the expense of the other person praying in the temple.

Again, St Augustine: ‘Examining the Pharisee’s words you find he asks nothing of God. He came up to pray. He has no wish to ask God for anything. He wishes simply to praise himself; and insult the other man praying there.’ Which brings us to the tax collector, who though standing ‘off at a distance’ physically is brought near to God with his piety. He communicates as one who holds this relationship, this companionship, in the highest of importance. He cares how he responds to God’s gift of love. He is sorrowful about how he is living this relationship and worried about how his life might affect it, but he is also comfortable in talking with God. He is humble. Even given the power that his position in society affords him, he understands the importance of his relationship with God and talks with Him and offers up his sorrow in hope that he and God can still walk together.

How do we pray?

At God or with God. Do we run through a litany of our achievements without any remorse for the judgments and actions we continually make towards others? Do we focus on our dialog with God or is it a monologue? Do we place this relationship at the top of our desires and priorities or is it just something to do?

The other aspect of our relationship is how we act towards God’s actions to us – in this particular case – how to we participate in Christ’s gift of himself in Holy Mass.

We see in the parable that the Pharisee, who is a religious leader, well versed in the Jewish religion, has come with his own agenda into sacred space where man responds to God’s loving initiatives. It is a holy space for Judaism, a place of sacrifice that is regulated by the religious practices that have evolved over almost 2 millennia. But this leader doesn’t appreciate this space and the gifts that allow him to worship – he just does his own thing. The tax collector, on the other hand, is unsure of his suitability to be there and holds himself back. But still, he throws himself, and his sorrow, at God’s mercy. In a way, he offers his contrition for this failures as sacrifice in hope that they will be accepted by God. He, in his own way, makes correct use of the religious practices.

How do we act to God’s actions, His gifts to us – the sacraments?

Have we tried to understand the reasons why things are done the way they are in Mass? Do we come before this altar, which represents Jesus; which brings forward to us the actual passion of Christ and bow in reverence to all that it stands for and all that happens on it? Do we genuflect in acknowledgment that God is residing in the Tabernacle, indeed is the first thing we do when we enter a church look for the tabernacle and see if the tabernacle light is burning? Do we reverence our God by trying to understand all that He offers us in the Sacraments? Do we hunger for a more intimate relationship with our God? Or do we come in and self-promote ourselves as the Pharisee does, or just go through the motions because that is what is expected of us?

In both interactions, how we view our relationship with one another will be seen. If my view of our religion is more about me, then that is what I will end up with – me. I will be by myself, my pride will weigh me down and keep me from rising to meet God. If my view of our religion is more about relationship with God and how I can be a better companion, then we will most assuredly meet. Or as Christ tells us in the Gospel: ‘whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.’

Lives poured out for us.

Today is Serra Club’s Priesthood Sunday. It is a day that we should celebrate the priesthood; celebrate our priests by acknowledging this gift from God and respond with honor and respect and recommit ourselves to the ministry of vocations.

St. Paul, in the second reading today, spoke of the gift of ministry – which is the total gift of self to God.  St. Paul’s words, describing his life in service to Christ also echoes Christ’s life of public ministry; and it is a narrative of every priest’s life as well.

I am already being poured out like a libation,
and the time of my departure is at hand.
. . .
At my first defense no one appeared on my behalf,
but everyone deserted me.
May it not be held against them!
But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength,
so that through me the proclamation might be completed
and all the Gentiles might hear it.

This is the life that these men were called to and said yes to.  For love of God and for love of those whom God loves (us) they are pouring their lives out.Each of these men have taken as their own the first reading today from Sirach.  By their saying yes to Christ they have chosen to be the vehicle that Sirach’s message is completed in our lives. Listen to Sirach again:

The LORD is a God of justice, who knows no favorites.
Though not unduly partial toward the weak, yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.
The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan, nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint.
The one who serves God willingly is heard; his petition reaches the heavens.
The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal,
nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds, judges justly and affirms the right,
and the Lord will not delay.

So what are we to do today, to honor these men?  What is our thanks?  Words of gratitude and encouragement?  Though words of recognition are helpful to most, I can’t help but think that they are pale thanks for those men who gave their all to bring God to us and us to God.

We should honor them by honoring God.  We should realize and put to action our respect for these men who gave their whole life over.  Every time you see a priest, remember him at the altar, or in the confessional, or at the hospital – allowing Christ to work through him.  The day that these men were ordained Deacons they no longer were individuals; Franklin Duran was no more, David Lawrence was no more – there was an ontological change – their beings were changed – they were now one with Christ, they became His feet, voice and ears. And after ordained to the Priesthood they became Christ’s hands at the altar, – they are set apart, not above, but apart.  Father Franklin, Father David is who they are.

Yes, take the time, and not just today, to thank them but always remember the sacrifice given by them for you.  To be honest, it saddens and annoys me when I hear people talk about them with their first names.  The familiarity that this calls forth is just plain wrong, ontologically, theologically and respectfully.  I can’t help but be reminded of the Pharisee in today’s Gospel every time I hear someone talk about Franklin, or David – there is a vein of pride that causes such association.  It strips God from them, it belittles their sacrifice, it marginalizes God’s gift of them to us.  But it is also important to them to be reminded of who they have become.  Too often lately we have heard of, or known, priests who have lost their way and I can’t help but wonder if we had been part of this demise by our lack of respect towards their sacrifice; whether our actions towards them chipped away at the edges of their own self-worth as ‘persona Christi capitis’.

So, starting today, let’s bring to these men the respect and support they so need – so that when God finally calls them home they can say ‘I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.

Marching Orders

St. Paul, in today’s second reading, gives us marching orders.  His words mandate us to a life of service to Christ:  ‘I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingly power: proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching.’  For those of us who accept Christianity in its entirety these words are not shocking or ominous; we know that, as followers of Christ, we have no other choice – or rather we have only two choiceswith our lives.

1. Follow Christ who is our center, or
2. Go another way; away from Christ and become mired in confusion, despair, loneliness.

Pope Francis in a homily on September 7th said that ‘If Jesus is not at the center, “other things are”(1).  We can’t allow other things to take the place of Jesus in our lives; today’s Collect (Opening Prayer) is a petition to have just that,

Almighty ever-living God,
grant that we may always conform our will to yours
and serve your majesty in sincerity of heart.

But as St. Paul proclaims and the Collect asks God for help with – it more than just interior change that we will be judged on; we are called to go to society and bring Jesus back into the public life of society if it is to thrive and help its members realize their true dignity and worth.

In the past decade we have witnessed a rapid disintegration of civility in this country.  In politics, entertainment, business – in every aspect of life; the respect and concern given to each other has devolved into indifference, isolation and disinterest.  This leads mankind to view each other, when our paths do cross, with annoyance, irritation, antagonism.  We look at the other not with the dignity of a child of God but with the lenses of utilitarianism.  And of course, deep down we start to look at ourselves with those same lenses – a grayness sets into our souls.

However, with Jesus at the center, we bring back the light, we feel the warmth of worth.  When, by our words and actions, we proclaim the word we start to heal the malady of modernity.  The grayness of life, that is so pervasive, fades and life becomes colorful.  Father Barron, in his new series on the new evangelization tells a story about a tour through Germany; as they left northern Germany and entered Bavaria in the south, their guide mentions they will notice how much happier and brighter the region is and its people are. The guide also mentions that they are passing from predominately protestant and modern Germany into the mostly Catholic and traditional Germany.  Bavaria is known for its strong Catholic faith, its Marian devotion; society there is very centered on Jesus.

What is the word that we must proclaim, what message is to be witnessed to?  ‘Christ risen from the dead’! This is the Good News, the Evangelium.  This is the reason for our hope, for our joy.  This is the central message of Holy Mother Church.  Our God has defeated death for us, has paid the ransom for our sins; has turned the monologue of man trying to reach up to God on his own terms back to a dialog of love where God and man reach to each other, and man reaches out to fellow man.  We preach the meaning of fellowship, of love.

But the biggest hurdle to this plan of healing is that we need to start; plain and simple, we need to begin.  Each of us needs to take that step and start proclaiming ‘Christ risen from the dead!’ ‘Be not afraid’ Blessed John Paul the Great told us – and this is true.  For with us at every moment is God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  We are never alone, we are always and forever a team: you, me and God.  No matter what situation we find ourselves in we should be joyful, knowing our Lord’s opinion of our worth and His love for us; and we can if we only open ourselves up to it every day.  This why constant, consistent prayer is so important – it keeps us in the loving dialog with God and prevents the prince of the world from gaining a foothold in our life.

Every day, for years, I recite in my prayers the following:

‘Lord may my vocation burn ever brighter in my heart,
may I grow to love you more each day
and conform more and more to your will.’

As we see in today’s Collect the Church herself asks the same.

At the end of Mass we are dismissed with: ‘Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.’ – let’s do just that. May Christ be at the center of our lives.  May we all respond to St. Paul’s charge and bring God to society and society to God. Let’s push back the grayness of modernity and bring the color of Christ to our world.

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(1)    L’osseratore Romano 9/11/13 english edition pg.10

Contemplation as Christ sees it

Yesterday was the feast day of one of my most favorite saints, St. Teresa of Avila (St. Teresa of Jesus).  I have always been fond of her writings and her frank and decisive actions.  I feel connected by her suffering of headaches like me. She seemed to have endless energy to fight against the status quo and rebuild a religious order.  But one of the things that struck me the most was how she related to our Lord. One story about her exemplifies this: when she was complaining about being treated badly Christ told her ‘Teresa, that’s how I treat my friends’ to which she answered ‘If that is how you treat your friends no wonder you have so few’.

This, to me, points out the power of a contemplative prayer life.  The contemplation I am talking about isn’t the special contemplation that St. Teresa and other mystics experience – but a much more accessible and available kind. One that if exercised by each of us brings us into that life of prayer we so much need.

St. Teresa walked the world in conversation with the Lord, a conversation that wasn’t rote, wasn’t a subject talking with a king; but one of a friend talking to a friend.  The story mentioned above is just that, a friend talking with a friend.  With this relationship, this ability to have a friendly conversation, St. Teresa found the energy needed to do the Lord’s bidding, to help her friend.  This living a life in prayer enabled her to meet the challenges because she was meeting them with Christ.

We too should strive for this type of prayer life.  By constantly conversing with our Lord, telling Him everything we feel, even complaining as St Teresa did, we build our life into one of intimate association with God.  We talk with Him as friend, then we find we notice Him walking with us as friend and in time we act as He does, think as He does, feel as He does, love as He is Love.  Our life becomes one of contemplating as He does.  This is grace.

 

Altar with a Purpose

Our Parish received a new permanent altar this past week.

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Today’s vespers marks a transition; our first vesper service with the new altar.  Of course we know that this isn’t a new altar, it was originally in one of the houses for religious at Driscoll High School; then it was stored in the Pastoral center for years after the High School was closed.  And now that the Pastoral center has been sold and is moving to a new location this altar has found its way to us.

But throughout its journey, it has always been one thing, an altar.  It is representative of Jesus Christ, which is the reason clergy venerate it with a kiss at the beginning and end of Mass.  It is representative of Calvary, and indeed more than representative, since Calvary is present at every Mass on it.  Throughout all its movements and situations this altar’s purpose has never changed, it is where the source and summit of our faith, our very lives, happen.  If this altar could emit emotion it would be one of joy because once again it is participating in the King of the Universe’s sacrifice to His Father, it is being used as it was intended.  The potential within has, once again, been realized; its purpose is being fulfilled.

We too, throughout our lives, through the changes of our bodies, our environment, our situations always remain the same in one very ontological way; we belong to God.  Sometimes our purpose is potential, other times it is active; but as long as we present ourselves in front of an altar during a Mass and participate in our Lord’s Sacrifice our purpose is strong.  May each of us, in all of our transitions hold fast to our purpose and radiate it to the world.  May each of us, every time we participate in a Mass, here or elsewhere see within the altar our Lord and Savior as He shows us how much He loves us – and with Him – offer our intentions and prayers to the our Father in heaven.