Sunday, October 31, 2010

The First and Most Important Step of Faith: Going Out on a Limb

Much attention is rightfully paid in our tradition to the "active" dimension and expressions of faith: professing the Triune God, practicing charity, advocating for justice, showing a preferential regard for the poor, etc... But what if I suggested that the first "act" of faith, and the most important, is really not very active at all but, nevertheless, is perhaps the most difficult?

The story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10 (today's Gospel from the Mass) provides the key for answering the above "faith riddle." The story is, of course, about the famous tax-collector who literally and figuratively "went out on a limb" to catch sight of Jesus and who was rewarded for this gesture by the Lord calling him down from the sycamore tree, staying at his house, and sharing the gift of God's saving love with him. However, this story really isn't about what Zacchaeus did in climbing the tree nor in what he did when he affirmed his faith in God by giving away half of his wealth to the poor and promising to repay four-fold anyone whom he cheated. The most important thing that Zacchaeus did is precisely what he didn't do: Zacchaeus didn't hide.

If anyone could have hid from Jesus, it would have been Zacchaeus. Being a tax-collector, he would have been ostracized from the Jewish community; being wealthy, he would not have been the focus of Jesus' ministry (in Luke, Jesus exercises a clear preference for the poor and the sinner); being short in stature would have made it quite easy for him to hide behind others. He also no doubt had deeper reasons for hiding: shame, feelings of inadequacy, and his own or the community's perception of him being a sinner.

With a little "reading between the lines", the story of Zacchaeus provides insight into the first, and most important and ongoing act of faith: simply not hiding ourselves from relationship with God. In our day and age, it is quite easy to hide behind our "gadgets", frenetic activity, a title, our work, social status, addiction, etc...etc.... On a deeper level, we also hide because of anxiety, guilt, shame, pain, and the broken or strained relationships we have endured that perhaps have convinced us we cannot be loved or we cannot bear to risk ourselves in love again. We do have both good and not so good reasons for hiding. But in hiding, we miss out on love and life and we also waste so much time and energy trying to keep ourselves concealed from God, others, and especially ourselves.

Alice Miller, a psychiatrist who treats those who have suffered trauma, had this to say about our efforts to "hide": "Our truth is stored in our body and although we can repress it, we can never altar it. Our intellect can be deceived, our feelings manipulated, our perceptions confused, our body tricked with medication. But someday the body will present it's bill - for it is as incorruptible as a child who, still whole in spirit, will accept no compromises, or excuses and it will not stop tormenting us until we stop evading the truth."

The Good News of the Gospel is that for those who go out on a limb to meet God, when our "bills" come due we don't have to pay them alone. The message of the Cross and today's Gospel clearly points to a God who is willing to go to great heights and depths, even hell and back, to find us, collect us, help us "pay our bills", and ultimately lead us home. If only we simply not be afraid to "go out on a limb" and allow ourselves to truly be seen. Pat, TOR

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Avatar Up A Tree

In last year’s Sci-Fi hit Avatar, Sam Worthington plays a paraplegic marine, Jake Sully whose DNA match to his deceased twin brother gets him an unexpected shot at a completely new life. Technology has advanced to the point where earthlings can have their consciousness “transported” into the bodies of turquoise beings the size of poplar trees. Jake’s new life just begins with his newfound strength and agility. His ‘avatar’ gives him not only new height, but eventually, a new depth. One skill that serves as a turning point is what he learns through his relationship with his mentor and constant companion Neytiri, played by Zoe Saldana. Neytiri helps Jake see, to borrow a phrase from Gerard Manley Hopkins, “the dearest freshness, deep-down things.” Jake finds that when he allows himself to “see” as do the Na’vi, his life changes. For the Na’vi “to see” is the same as “to love”. For Jake, now being seen and able to see, he is at home.

Seeing, the kind that Zacchaeus goes to great lengths to do in this Sunday’s gospel, is more than the furtive glance of the curious. In verse 4 we read: “So he ran ahead and climbed a sycomore tree to see
him, because he was going to pass that way.” Zacchaeus needs to see. The English “see” is a rendering of the Greek word for “seeking” or “desire”/ “longing” (ξητέω). It is also used in conjunction with the “Worship of God”

Zacchaeus was more than a short guy with a big income and few friends, he “longed” for something more. Is this what Jesus was able to see – beyond a chief tax-collector (i.e. sinner); behind the camouflage of the tree branches and the opinions of the crowd? This is the kind of view the Gospel encourages in those longing to see. Perhaps Zacchaeus could no longer find all his satisfaction in his material wealth?

There is nothing in the Scripture to suggest that the “Publican” that we heard about in last Sunday’s Gospel and Zacchaeus are one and the same. However, the fact that we hear these stories on successive Sunday’s would lead us to link them. Both are ”Publicans”, which at that time was synonymous with “sinner”. The Pharisee who did not go home from the Temple “justified” refers to the guy in the back row as a “tax-collector”, he is grouped with the “adulterous” and “prostitutes”. Current public opinion would have considered Zacchaeus as just one more of “Those people…”.

We know that Jesus says that the repentant Publican “went home justified”. He “made things right”! His act of piety was born out in today’s reading when, after Jesus comes into his home, Zacchaeus stands up and not only makes restitution for his crime and sins, he “pays back four-fold”. Had a judge found him guilty and demanded the restitution prescribed for thieves, that would have been considered just punishment. However, without judge and jury to convict him, Zacchaeus engages in an act of generosity. He willingly, “open handedly gives some of his bread to the poor” as Proverbs 22:9 says.

Zacchaeus is made right before God and the people and his generosity demonstrates what made the Publican’s prayer in the Temple so authentic. True piety results in making things right and not in self-congratulatory speeches. God sees us and knows our hearts. Having been seen by God, we know that we are loved and are better able to see ourselves and others in a new way. “Jake Sully’s” avatar discovered this new vision. So did Zacchaeus. The same is true for us. Are we too longing to see Jesus? Carl,TOR

Faith Illustration: Transformed from Glory to Glory

Today begins a new series on our community's Blog! The series is entitled, "Faith Illustrations" and is based on a number of computer generated symbolic drawings that I did while I was a student of theology. Each illustration depicts some aspect of the mystery of the Christian and Catholic faith. The point and purpose of each illustration is to demonstrate that our faith is meant to be dynamic and contemporary: drawing forth the insights from tradition and contemporary Christian theology/spirituality and "wrapping" them in new metaphors, symbols, and imagery in order to convey the mystery in a compelling and relevant way.

The above illustrations depict the process of "divinization" or "theosis" in the life of the human person, specifically, one who lives a Christ-like life. Before we consider what each sequence in the top illustration signifies, please go to the bottom picture, place your mouse arrow on the black circle, and click (the picture is an animated file and will depict the above drawing in a more dynamic manner). Now let's move on to an explanation of the illustration and the animated version of it.

The black circle represents the "primordial" or "rudimentary" elements of what constitutes the human person. From a psychological standpoint, it symbolizes unconsciousness. The second sequence, entitled, "let there be light", signifies the dawning of human consciousness. This process unfolds slowly. This is represented in the animated picture by the grey circle gradually emerging from the black one. In terms of evolution, it took perhaps thousands of years (or more) for the "light to go on" in the human mind and heart. With regard to human development, from the time of birth, consciousness gradually grows in a child until it reaches the heights of being able to distinguish between "me" and "you" (developmental psychologists believe that autobiographical consciousness, meaning the realization of "me" or "I" dawns at around the age of five).

In the third sequence, "Let us Make Humans", a clear circle emerges from the black and grey circles. This circle symbolizes the dawning of "transcendent consciousness", "religious consciousness", or "spiritual consciousness". Very basically, this is the awareness of the "something more" to life, the awareness of meaning, value, the unsurpassable worth of every person and the dignity of every creature, it is the experience of God. The fourth sequence, "The Word Became Flesh and Dwelt Among Us," is signified by the ancient Celtic "Triquetra" symbol emerging in the middle of the black, grey, and clear circles. The triquetra, of course, represents the Trinity. It's placement in the middle of the circles symbolizes the Incarnation of Christ and how, as a result, the Triune God, Father, Son, and Spirit, dwells within humanity.

Up to this point in the drawing, it's important to note that each sequence represents a process that is largely involuntary. We don't choose to have an unconscious, conscious, nor even transcendent conscious. These aspects of the human mind, heart, spirit, and soul are a given, or, are gifted. Certainly, we can be more or less open to developing them. This is important to note because in the fourth sequence, the element of choice becomes paramount. The rotation of the clear circle to the top of the circles represents the choice to live one's life for ultimate or transcendent meaning (living for God and others).

When one makes the choice to live for God and others, this results in the Trinity diffusing itself throughout a persons life to the point that they become "divinized" or Christ-like. This, of course, is represented by the "collapse" of all the circles into one, beautiful, bright, and brilliant "circle of light."

This drawing depicts in dynamic fashion how our entire being is meant to be filled with God's love, such that we are "transformed from Glory to Glory" and so that "God can be all in all." May we all be "circles" of light and love for God, others, and ourselves! Pat, TOR

Friday, October 29, 2010

Paul's Salutation to the Philippians: The Power of Partnership

The opening salutation from Paul to the Church at Philippi (today's first reading from Mass) reveals Paul at his "tender-hearted" best. At the time that Paul wrote this letter, he was imprisoned in Rome, waiting to be put on trial for his testimony to the Gospel. No doubt this period of relative isolation gave him plenty of time to ponder his ministry, it's value, and it's lasting impact. Paul's affection for the members of the Church at Philippi is overflowing when he states, "I give thanks to my God at every remembrance of you." If one were to compare Paul's salutation and introduction to the Church at Philippi to the opening of some of his other letters (such as to the divisive Corinthians community) one might think they were written by two different authors! With the Corinthians he is critical and edgy; with the Philippians he is overflowing in praise and warm regards and is affirming and gentle.

What accounts for the difference? I believe it amounts to the "power of partnership." In two places Paul mentions his "partnership" with the Philippians and how he holds them in his heart. It is their presence in his heart and memory that are likely keeping Paul grounded in hope, even amidst chains, believing that his life has been well spent in service of the Gospel.

Much of Western society has been formed in the last several centuries by a focus on the individual and his or her "inalienable rights." While this is a bona fide advance in our understanding of the glory of what it means to be human, this emphasis has also been distorted to the point of individualism. Individualism very often undermines mutual relationship and partnership because in excessively asserting the rights of one person, it comes to regard the other as a potential "threat" who may undermine those rights. Perhaps the most lamentable effect of individualism is that it results in people being isolated, alienated, and cut-off from the potential friendships and partnerships that alone can bring wholeness. Paul's letter to the Philippians is therefore a timely reminder that the power of God's healing and transforming love manifests most powerfully in our lives when we risk ourselves in relationship and partnership with like-minded others who we can trust will, "hold us in their heart." Pat, TOR

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"Fitted" Together into Christ: The Spiritual Significance and Practical Relevance of Being Members of Christ's Body

Today's Feast day of the Apostles, Simon and Jude, begins with an intriguing reading from the Letter of Paul to the Ephesians. In it he describes the Christians in Ephesus as "built" into Christ like stones in a building, with the Apostles as the foundation and Christ as the capstone (the all important "cornerstone"). In the letter to the Corinthians, Paul describes Christians as "Christ's Body": knit together as a "seamless" unity-in-diversity. "Unity" pertains to a singular focus on Christ and promoting the values of the Kingdom of God; "diversity" refers to the uniqueness of the members and the gifts they bring. What makes for a "seamless" functioning of such a body is the unity of mind and heart toward a common goal: bearing the reality of Christ crucified and risen for the life of the world. The spiritual significance of Paul's referring to Christians as "built into Christ" and "members of his Body" is that it points to the very heart of God.

The Christian tradition has used three greek words throughout the centuries that are representative of how God's heart "beats" for the sake of the other: kenosis, perichoresis, and theosis. Kenosis refers to the dynamic of "outreach" or "pouring" one's self out for the sake of the other. The "first" outpouring of God is through the expression of his Word/Son, which God has spoken from all eternity (meaning that there was never a "moment" when the Word or Son didn't exist in God's heart). Our God is a God who has always "communicated" and is imminently relational! So potent is God's Word that this communication takes the form of an "Other." The "Other", God's "Word" and "Son", is so united with the One who speaks that the Word/Son naturally reciprocates and returns the self-same love that was given. This dynamic of complete gift of God's self to the Other and the reciprocal gift of the Other to God becomes a total communion or "dance" of mind and heart, the meaning of the greek word perichoresis (complete mutual penetration and indwelling). But this relationship doesn't end in a "dynamic-duo", it gets even better and more beautiful!! The "dynamic-duo" of Father and Word/Son is a bond or "dance" of mind and heart that is so magnificent and graceful that the bond or "dance" is itself constituted a person, the Holy Spirit. It is the seamless, beautiful, magnificent dance between these three "partners" that makes for "divinity" or "theosis" (meaning the process of being or becoming like the divine).

When God became human in the person of Jesus Christ, he came not merely to free from sin but to free us for the dance of kenosis, perichoresis, and theosis! The spiritual significance of Paul's use of the metaphors of being built into Christ as a building or a body point to the call of God that we reach out to the other through the gift of our self, become "one" in mind and heart with the other by working to realize God's aim that "all be one", and so become "divinized" or like God's very self! The practical relevance of becoming one in Christ through the Holy Spirit is namely that in the very near future (if not already!) there simply will be no other way of existing. By this I mean, the problems that we face in our world have become so complex and so gargantuan that they must be addressed through unity of purpose and solidarity of action. Take for example the reality of climate change (I say "reality" rather than "threat" because we are already in the midst of it). This threat is of such magnitude and complexity that it will require a unity of purpose and solidarity of action on the part of the entire global community if we are to stave off the worst scenarios. There are many other such problems that our world faces as well. Our reason to hope? Today's readings indicate that our hope rests squarely on a God who will never cease to pour out his Word and Spirit of love so that we may be ultimately bonded as one humanity that strives to realize nothing less than a new creation, where God will be "all in all." Pat, TOR

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Some "Keys" to Unlocking The Rich Meaning of Jesus' Teaching to,"Enter Through The Narrow Gate."

In the best seller "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," Stephen Covey states that one habit of effective leaders is that they "begin with the end in mind." If we apply this principle to Jesus' teaching in today's Gospel, we arrive at some insights into what he may have been alluding to and it's import for the life of discipleship.

Today's Gospel opens with Jesus being asked, "Lord, will only a few people be saved?" He responds to this question in typical cryptic style by issuing the "answer": "Strive to enter the narrow Gate, for many will try to enter but will not be strong enough," Rather than dealing with this question directly, I believe it is very fruitful to go to the end of Jesus' teaching in order to "acquire" the keys to unlock the gate and open up it's meaning for us.

Working in "backwards fashion", the three important "keys" are the following statements of Jesus: "some who are first will be last and some who are last will be first," "and people will come from the east and the west and the north and the south and will recline at table in the Kingdom of God", and, finally, "and there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the Kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out." Let's look briefly at each of these statements in turn.

The first two statements are foundational and very common themes to the Gospel writer, Luke. The first statement, "some who are first, etc...." deals with the theme of "divine reversal": Luke's experience and conviction that God is "turning the tables" and bringing salvation to those in most desperate need of it (the poor, outcast, sinner) while withdrawing the offer to those who are deceitfully rich and oppressively powerful. This statement powerfully attests to God's preferential regard for the poor. The second statement refers to Luke's theme of God's universal will to save: people of all stripes, colors, and convictions will find room at the banquet table of fellowship and love that is God's Kingdom. Finally, the reference to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the prophets is key because all of these persons actively embraced God's call and lived out the implications of this calling to the full.

Now that we have these three important keys in hand, let's start "unlocking" the meaning of the narrow gate! It's extremely important to note that the gates along the wall of Ancient Jerusalem were very often quite intricate, fortified, and served a number of purposes (see the picture above). Many were very definitely NOT mere passageways. While much could be said about the gate itself, what is important for our purposes is that they were places of important gatherings of civic leaders, judges, and civilians. In other words, they were places of deliberation, tension, confrontation, and decision.

Considering the important fact that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem and would likely pass through the narrow gate himself, the following interpretation seems warranted: to enter the narrow gate connotes a very active mode of discipleship. It means bringing the news of God's "universal" saving will and special regard for the poor to the very heart of the world: those places of deliberation, tension, confrontation, and decision. In short, it means "putting one's self out there" for the sake of others and actively engaging the important issues of our day (especially as they concern the poor). Ultimately, those who find themselves "locked outside the Kingdom" in today's Gospel are judged by their own words; they ate and drank in the company of the Lord and were present at his teachings, but they didn't follow him through the narrow gate of "active engagement": putting one's faith in direct service of others and the life of the world. Pat, TOR

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Seeing The Kingdom: Reflection on Today's Gospel

"What is the Kingdom like?" is Jesus' question to his hearers in today's Gospel. This question sets the stage for Jesus' painting a portrait of the dynamics of the Kingdom through the use of metaphors that would have been quite common to the people of his time. First he states that the Kingdom is like a mustard seed that is sewn into a garden, grows to an impressive stature, and becomes a large bush that offers refuge to the birds of the air. The second metaphor Jesus uses to describe the Kingdom is leaven that diffuses itself throughout a measure of wheat flour.

The characteristics of the Kingdom that can be derived from these metaphors is that it is a subtle, nondescript (meaning hard to describe or easy to overlook), but diffusive and potent manifestation of God's solicitude toward creation and all creatures. If the Kingdom is so subtle and nondescript, an important question that this raises is how do we "see" the Kingdom in our midst, and, even more importantly, how do we participate in it?

While there are likely many different ways to see and participate in the Kingdom of God, the Franciscan tradition offers one "key" for probing this mystery. St. Bonaventure, a 13th Century Franciscan scholar, came up with a curious word to describe how St. Francis was able to perceive and participate in God's Kingdom. According to Bonaventure, through Francis' devotion to Christ, especially his ministry to the poor, his passion, and his death and Resurrection, he came to "contuit" God and Christ's presence diffused through every situation and all creation. To grasp the profundity of this word and what it means for "seeing" God's presence at work in the world, we need only compare it to another word, "intuit." To intuit something, or to have intuition into something, means to penetrate "beyond" what is perceived in order to grasp it's meaning. For example, when we see storm clouds gather we "intuit" the meaning that there is likely a storm on the way.

Contuition implies not a "grasping" for meaning but, rather, to be gently and powerfully "grasped" by meaning. The prefix "con", which means "with", indicates that this type of vision is a "seeing with". In other words, contuition is a "relational" mode of perception whereby we see and experience something not simply on our own but in, with, and through the eyes and heart of another. A great example is when a parent sees the world anew and afresh through the eyes of his or her little child. Essentially, contuition is a way of seeing that comes from our communion with God.

To see and participate in the Kingdom that is subtly diffusing itself throughout the world, we need simply allow God's presence and love to subtly and gently diffuse itself throughout our lives and relationships. When we allow God to take gentle and empowering hold of our imagination and lives, we, like Francis, will be able to "contuit" the Kingdom which is always in our midst, if only as an offer. Pat, TOR

Monday, October 25, 2010

Putting Persons before "Practice"

Today's Gospel reading from Mass tells the story of a woman who approaches Jesus in the synagogue on the sabbath to be healed of a severe infirmity that she had endured for 18 years. The Gospel relates that Jesus was carrying out the traditional Sabbath practice of teaching at the time that he caught sight of the woman. Once he sees her, he stops mid-stream and calls her to himself, laying his hands upon her and healing her. However, some in Jesus' audience were not at all amused! The synagogue leader, being a faithful observer of sabbath protocol, rebuked those in the crowd with the admonition, "there are six days when work is to be done, come on one of those days to be healed, and not the sabbath day."

The synagogue leaders request seems reasonable enough. Jesus, however, responds by calling him (and anyone else in agreement with him) "hypocrites." He then cites the common practice of watering one's livestock on the Sabbath and makes the obvious point that if one is willing to do good for an animal on the Sabbath, how much more should one reach out to another in need! The point that one of our friars, Fr. Patrick Quinn, made regarding this Gospel story is that at times we lose cite of persons in deference to practice. In other words, we can become so conditioned to routine, habits, agendas, programs, etc...that we overlook the importance of the persons around us....perhaps even seeing them only as "interruptions" or as a "means to an end." Today's Gospel illustrates in wondrous and dramatic fashion the healing power that can rush upon our world when we put persons before practice. Pat, TOR

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Humility: The Key to Communion with God and Others (Reflection on the readings for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Nearly all of us can probably readily bring to mind persons who we've run across that have an aura of being "high and mighty" and those who are "down to earth." The "high and mighty" type basically operate out of a "superiority complex" and look down upon others for a host of reasons. The "down to earth" type is quite the opposite: they are easy to approach and get along with, are fairly non-judgmental, and don't have to make their presence "felt" when they occupy space shared by others.

In the Gospel (Luke 8:9-14) we have two characters who are "prototypes" of the above dispositions. The Pharisee comes off as filled with himself while the tax-collector is much more grounded and balanced in his self-assessment. It's important to note that this teaching of Jesus didn't intend to indict the Pharisees on the whole (some were secret followers of Jesus and others sympathetic to his cause) but was really meant to 1) compare and contrast two basic attitudes toward God and others and 2) lift up the attitude or disposition of the tax-collector as exemplary (which would have been quite shocking to some of Jesus' hearers, because, after all, tax-collectors colluded with the occupying Roman authority and were therefore "reprobate" in the eyes of many!)

An important question to ask in unlocking the meaning of the Gospel is precisely "why" the tax collector was ultimately justified by God and not the Pharisee. When we consider that to be "justified" by God means to be in right relationship or communion with God, this charts a course for a fruitful understanding. To begin with, at the heart of the matter is not a certain piety and outwardly expression but an inner attitude and fundamental orientation. God is not glorified through the bending of knees, a solemn appearance, the folding of one's hands, or other such gesture. These mean little or nothing if they are not matched by the inner awareness of who God is, who we are in relation to God, and who we are in relation to others.

The Pharisee clearly sees himself as almost on an even par with God and superior to others. Really his prayer smacks of a monologue rather than a dialogue with God. His prayer really amounts to: "Dear Me, thank you for Me, geez....aren't I great!!" The tax collector, on the other hand, recognizes that God is merciful, that he is in need of mercy, and that he's therefore in the same boat with everyone else!!

The tax collector leaves the temple justified by God, in part, because he's filled with humility. The root of this word, the Latin word "humus", means "soil or earth." The tax collector is "down to earth" and grounded in the fundamental awareness of his need of God, his own state-of-affairs, and, by extension, his solidarity with others. Above all, the tax-collector leaves the temple justified because he has "stooped to God's level" in embracing the totality of his condition and is therefore drawn into fuller communion with God.

By "stooping to God's level" I mean that in becoming human and choosing to frequent the lowly, "earthy" places of Palestine (i.e., Galilee), God in Christ deigned to live an imminently grounded, "down to earth" existence. In Christ God embraces the totality of human complexity, weakness, neediness, and the fragile beauty of our condition. By being grounded and down to earth, we are justified because we encounter and commune with God precisely where God "spends" so much of his time: in all the many "Galilees", or tense, broken, fragile, needy, yet oftentimes beautiful spaces/places that make up our life, our relationships, and our world. Pat, TOR

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The God Who "Collects" Us

Tonight as I was praying the Liturgy of the Hours (the official prayer of the Church) in Spanish (I often do this for the sake of practice), I came across a word in a stanza from psalm 26. The stanza reads,"si mi padre y mi madre mi abandonan, el señor me recogerá." In the English version of the Liturgy of the Hours, this stanza is rendered, "if my father and my mother forsake me, you will receive me." However, the word for "receive" in Spanish is "recibir". What is this strange word, "recogerá"?

When I looked up the word on Google translate (a wonderful resource, by the way, for you language learners!) I found out that the word "recogerá" means to "collect." What an interesting difference between the English translation and the Spanish one! According to the Spanish translation of psalm 26, if father or mother forsake us (or anyone else near to us), God will be there to "collect" us!

What a tremendous difference one word can make, no? The insight that this spurred in my imagination is that our God is not only a God who "receives" us in our forsakenness, but is a God who will "stoop low" to pick up the shattered pieces of our hearts and help us piece our lives back together. Pat, TOR

Fall Foliage in Central Pennsylvania

The fall season colors are on full display here in Central Pennsylvania. The above pictures were taken at three trails near Hollidaysburg, PA. The trails are part of a "Rails to Trails" conservancy program that converts old, unused rail lines into hiking and biking trails that seem to go on forever! The name of the trails are the Ghost Town Trail, the 6-10 Trail, and the Lower Trail. I usually try to spend the better part of one day weekly walking the trails and soaking up the refuels my batteries and helps me to get into touch with my Franciscan roots! Enjoy the pictures (especially those of you in the South)! Pat, TOR

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Beauty of Orthodoxy: Carrying the Cross a "Socio-Cultural" Reality

[For those unfamiliar with the series of reflections that I've recently posted under the heading, "The Beauty of Orthodoxy": orthodoxy refers to "right" belief with regard to a particular religious confession, Catholic, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, etc... It is a term that is especially important with respect to organized religions that are based on revelation and the dogma and doctrines that flow from it. "Rightness" of belief is not merely precise and correct articulation, but, more importantly, an appreciation for the breadth of what makes up our faith. For example, it is correct to assert that Jesus is Son of God, but without a corresponding appreciation for the fullness of his humanity, one would not be very orthodox. This series aims to "expand" our appreciation of what makes up our Christian faith by pointing out areas of the faith that have been overlooked or under-appreciated and that are in need of being recovered to meet the challenges of the 21st Century]

Very often when we hear the phrase that Christians must "carry the cross" we think of the Cross as a personal or interpersonal symbol. A "personal" cross might be a bout with an illness that we've come to believe is meant to draw us into closer communion with Christ. An "interpersonal" cross might be struggling to show compassion to someone we are in relationship with who is a bit challenging. Without a doubt the cross is a symbol which not only points to the passion and sacrifice of the Lord for the sake of others but equally points to how our life is meant to be united to this self-same passion and sacrifice in a very personal and interpersonal manner.

On the other hand, the cross is also a symbol that has dynamic implications for the social and cultural realm of life. Consider Paul's letter to the Ephesians (today's first reading from Mass, c.f., In Ephesians 2:12-22, Paul elaborates how Christ broke down the "enmity" (hatred, animosity) between Jew and Gentile through his blood and Cross in order to reconcile both and create peace and unity. What this ultimately implies is that the Cross is a symbol which points to the profound initiative of God in Christ and Holy Spirit to unite all persons regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status, party affiliation, etc...

Part of the tension and conflict that has plagued humanity throughout the ages, and that afflicts us now, is the tendency to try to delineate who is "in" versus who is "out". Many separate, divide, and label others based on skin color, economic well-being, class, religion, ethnicity, immigration status, citizenship, etc.... Such separation creates unnecessary division, tension, and eventual conflict.

To bear the cross in our day and to be a disciple of Christ, it is essential to not only bear our personal and interpersonal "crosses", but to also follow the Apostle Paul's example by bearing the "socio-cultural" cross. It means putting our faith and discipleship at the fore of our self identity (rather than citizenship, social status, party affiliation, etc....). It also implies seeing all persons as sister and brother with one God as Father and Jesus Christ as brother, regardless of their difference from us. Pat, TOR

Monday, October 18, 2010

Feast of St. Luke the Evangelist: The Good News of a God Whose Love Knows No Bounds nor Boxes!

A preaching instructor I once had used to say, time and again, "every homily or sermon must in some way proclaim the Good News." The Gospel of Luke usually makes such an aim exceedingly easy! It is replete with images, metaphors, and dramatic and dynamic parables that ooze good news! Take for example the opening chapter: Mary sings a canticle of praise to God who "shows the strength of his arm," "scatters the proud in their conceit," "casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly", "fills the hungry with good things", "sends the rich away empty", "comes to the help of his servant Israel", and "remembers his promises of old." This is indeed good, and even great, news to those who are both literally and figuratively hungry and thirsty! (It's not so good, however, for the "high and mighty!")

The praise of God continues in Luke with the song of the priest/prophet Zechariah just ten or so verses later. Zechariah tells of a God who "raises up a savior", "saves from enemies", "promises to show mercy", "sets free from enemies", "forgives sins", and, above all, is a God of "tender compassion." Luke lays a foundation in the first chapter that promises quite a lot! In subsequent chapters he "stands and delivers" by showing how Jesus embodies all of the above and reveals the Good News of a God whose love knows no bounds nor boxes!

Chapter 15 is probably the most dramatic depiction of the God who loves beyond limit and beyond rules. If you've never read the chapter in it's entirety, it's well worth it since these parables are unique to Luke (not repeated in any other Gospel) and cut to the chase of the manner in which God loves. The theme of the three parables that comprise chapter 15 could be phrased, "what was lost has been found." At their core, however, the parables aren't so much about what was lost but who seeks relentlessly and even frantically to find the lost.

The chapter begins with a parable about a lost sheep, proceeds to a tale about a lost coin, and finishes with the climactic rendering of the "lost" or "prodigal" son. Without going into detail about the specifics of each story, what stands out is the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go after the one who strayed (instead of simply cutting his losses), the woman who frantically searches the house at nighttime to find a lost coin (instead of simply waiting until the morning to look), and the Father who races out to embrace his wayward son at a distance (instead of making the son sheepishly come all the way home unaccompanied and beg for forgiveness). The Church celebrates the feast of St. Luke today precisely because of the way in which his Gospel "oozes Good News": the Good News of a God whose love knows no bounds and no boxes!! Pat, TOR

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Care for Creation (C4C) End of Season Fall Harvest Festival

The Care for Creation (C4C) project marked the end of another successful year with the Fall Harvest Festival held on October 9th. Close to 100 persons attended the event. The evening began with a prayer ritual to mark the transition from Summer to Fall and was followed by fellowship, a "best carved pumpkin" contest, songs of praise, marshmallow roasting, and stories around the bonfire, and concluded with hayrides. The C4C project season goes from May until October and includes rituals and festivals to celebrate the rhythms of the seasons (planting ritual, Summer Bounty Festival, Fall Harvest Festival), a "green gardening course" (every Monday evening in March) and a Summer Presentation series that focuses on topics related to sustainability and the "green movement." We are happy to say that nearly every C4C event was well-attended and indicates that the concept and project is beginning to take "firm root" as a part of the larger community. Next year, in addition to C4C, our community will be assuming responsibility for the Blair County Community Gardens. We very much look forward to this opportunity and believe it will enhance the C4C initiative a great deal. Pat, TOR

Transitus of St. Francis Celebration

On October 3rd Our Lady Queen of Peace fraternity of the Secular Franciscan Order (SFO) hosted the yearly observance of the Transitus of St. Francis. This celebration remembers the passage of Francis from this life to eternal life through ritual, symbol, song, and through readings from the biographies of Francis which bear testimony to his tremendous spirit and legacy of life that has endured for over 800 years. The celebration took place at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Altoona, PA, and was well attended by Secular Franciscans and friars from the Immaculate Conception Province of the Third Order Regular. Thanks to Fr. Christopher Panagoplos, TOR, Provincial Spiritual Assistant to the SFO, and all who made it such a great celebration!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Reflection on the Readings for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Salvation Through Identification

When approaching and considering the saving "event" of the birth, life, ministry, passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, it's imperative to pose the basic question, "is the mystery of salvation a 'once and for all' occurrence that happened 2,000 plus years ago or is it an ongoing event that covers the entire sweep of history?" What is at stake in asking this question is whether salvation is a "static", "finished" affair with relatively little or nothing to do with our contemporary lives and history (i.e., something that we only experience definitively in heaven) or a "dynamic", "ongoing" mystery, constantly attempting to penetrate every "nook" and "cranny" of our lives and world (thus making it "ultra-relevant" to all that make up our lives and world). All three readings point to the saving mystery of God as being the type of mystery that is dynamic, ongoing, and ultra-relevant to all that makes up our lives and the affairs of our world. To tap the root of such a possibility and to allow the Lord's saving mystery of Cross and Resurrection to flow into our lives and world, transforming them in the here-and-now means a decision for total communion with the Lord; so identifying with him that, in the words of Paul, "it is no longer I but Christ." (Galatians, 2:20).

Three central-characters from each of today's readings point the way to how God's saving mystery can become something dynamic and "ultra-relevant" to our lives. In the first reading from the Second Book of Kings we meet Naaman, a gentile commander of the Armies of Ben-Haded II, King of Aram, who is suffering from leprosy (the entire story of Naaman is found in 2 Kings, 5:1-19). Naaman is recommended to the Hebrew Prophet Elisha by one of his servants (she has heard of Elisha's miraculous powers). Naaman follows up this recommendation by sending word to the prophet that he would like to be healed. Elisha than tells him to go the Jordan and wash himself and he will be made whole. He does so and is cleansed of his leprosy. Yet this is no mere physical healing. Naaman goes on to renounce his previous faith and professes his new faith in the God of Israel. So transformed is his faith that he arranges to have two mule loads of dirt from Israel brought back to his homeland in order that he may worship upon it. His healing and salvation is being realized through his identification with the Living God.

In Paul's second reading from Timothy, Paul says two things that evidence how the Lord's saving mystery has become ultra-relevant to his life. He tells Timothy, "Remember Jesus Christ, a descendent of David: such is my gospel, for which I am suffering." It appears that Paul has so identified with the Lord that he proclaims not only the Gospel of Christ as Christ's but as his own! Again, in the letter to the Galatians Paul states, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ."

Today's Gospel from Luke relates the story of the 10 lepers who were healed at a distance by Jesus (Luke 17:11-19). However, only one of the lepers (a Samaritan) returns to Jesus truly healed and restored, or made whole. The Gospel says that when the leper "realized" he had been healed, he returned praising God and threw himself at the feet of Jesus in thanks. The Greek word for "realized" means "to see" and in Luke connotes so much more than mere ocular perception. The Samaritan, Like Naaman and Paul, "sees" his life in a new light. His entire existence has been healed by God and he comes back to Jesus proclaiming not only the fact of his physical healing but also his new found faith.

The saving mystery of God, far from being a "one time event" continues to unfold and is meant to become a dynamic and "ultra-relevant" reality for our lives and world, just as it did for Naaman, Paul, and our Samaritan friend. For the saving mystery of God to become dynamic and "ultra-relevant" we need only come to identify so closely with the Lord that his Gospel becomes ours. How might this be done in a practical manner? Well, to begin with, since we are talking about relationship and communion with God, it is a life-long process! One way that we can come to identify with God's saving mystery is through the "baptism of our memory." Recently I spoke with a woman who admits that she is "stuck in the past" due to suffering the tragic loss of her son 22 years ago. Her chief complaint is that she cannot move on with life and goes round and round asking the question "why." Part of moving forward in her life may very well consist in allowing her memory of tragic loss to be united to God and Christ's in the Holy Spirit. What I'm suggesting is that her memory is not her own but is also present in the memory of God and can become a point of communion with the Lord such that the power of the Lord's cross and Resurrection can begin to dawn in her life in a new and unparalleled way - not bringing a facile explanation to the tragedy, but transforming it into a new way of "seeing" the event. When we bring the whole history of our lives and all our memories, good, bad, glorious, ugly, and even tragic, and allow them to be "baptized" in the Lord's saving mystery of Cross and Resurrection, we can come to know and "see" God's saving mystery at work in our lives and in our world. Pat, TOR

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Beauty of Orthodoxy: The Holy Spirit as The "Great Separator."

Would it be a surprise to you if I told you that the Holy Spirit is not merely the "great unifier" or "guarantor of unity" in the Church but is also equally the "great separator" and "guarantor of diversity" in the Church? An "orthodox" (meaning "theologically sound") approach to the Holy Spirit which is representative of scripture and tradition must account for the Spirit who separates and who creates not only unity but diversity.

A fascinating story from today's first reading from Mass illustrates this point well ( in his letter to the Galatians, Paul recounts a very tense and confrontational exchange with the Apostle Peter. Paul had been "set apart" or "separated" by the Spirit for the unique mission of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus to the Gentiles. This mission was validated by Peter and the other Apostles who came to discern that the Spirit was at work in the Gentiles bringing them to faith in Christ. However, it didn't take long for some Jewish members of the early community to try to impose their customs on the Gentile members. This became a point of great contention and eventually led to an open confrontation between Paul and Peter in which Paul accused Peter (in very public fashion) of hypocrisy: it seems that Peter was no longer following his own Jewish customs but was supporting the Jews who were mandating that the Gentiles "fall in line" and essentially become converts to Judaism!

We know, of course, that this tense interaction likely helped Peter and the other Apostles accept the reality that God was calling the Gentiles to Christ through the Spirit precisely as they were and was not also calling them to become something other than a Gentile Christian. This story illustrates the marvelous fact that the Holy Spirit unites through the embrace of plurality/diversity and does not impose uniformity. As a matter of fact, true unity can only come as a result of creatively and carefully holding the tension between diverse parts. Time and again we see the Spirit "separating" for the sake of creating a greater and richer unity-in-diversity. At Pentecost the Spirit sends "fire" down on the Apostles and they are given the gift of being able to speak different languages. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul refers to the diversity of the gifts of the Spirit which build up the Church (1 Corinthians 12) and create true unity.

Unfortunately, the Christian tradition (especially in the West) has often lost sight of the fact that the Holy Spirit is not only the great unifier and guarantor of unity but is equally the great separator and guarantor of diversity. From time to time movements arise within the Church which are intolerant of diverse expressions of the faith, especially in terms of theology, prayer, and worship. Such movements proclaim that they are at the service of unity but are actually imposing uniformity. Uniformity, far from being at the service of unity and communion, actually diminishes or destroys unity and communion by suppressing or oppressing diversity. In an age of globalization, with its heightened sense of diversity and the tension this brings, we are in desperate need of reaffirming the ancient and orthodox principle that the Holy Spirit is the mystery of a God who exists in a mode of unity-in-diversity and calls us to hold that same, creative and transformative tension for the building up of the Church and the life of world. Pat, TOR

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Carrying the Cross a Matter of Patiently Bearing the Tension Between the Real and the Ideal

The Cross has become one of my favorite symbols not only of Christianity but of how I try to approach life itself. More and more I imagine the Cross to be a "divine compass": pointing the way into a deeper entry and participation in the life of the Lord whose passion continues to unfold in the history of God's people and the Church alike. I remember vividly the day when the Cross stamped it's impress on my mind and heart not merely as a symbol of the death and Resurrection of the Lord but as a way of seeing and being in the world.

I was walking into a building on the beautiful campus of St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and was going up a flight of stairs I had been up and down innumerable times when I was dumbstruck by the fact that the small tiling that made up the floor was in the shape of the Cross. I realized at that moment that my life, and life itself, is bounded and surrounded by the Cross. What I mean by "bounded" and "surrounded" is that the Cross, a rich symbol with deep and abundant meaning concerning the love of God, Father, Son, and Spirit, is the norm of what it means to live a truly creaturely and human life (and, of course, by extension a Christian life). The dark, "crucified side" of the Cross, perhaps better than any other symbol, points to the reality of the travail, struggle, and suffering of the world. It reveals how life, when lived in an authentic and fully (or at least mostly) human manner brings both great hope and great disappointment (just think of Jesus' anguished cry from the Cross, "My God my God, why have you forsaken me?"). The light, "resurrected side" of the Cross is the promise that our hope in God ultimately will be fulfilled.

The Cross places before us the "ideal" of how life and love are to be lived (in the manner that God as Trinity lives) but also demands that we accept the "real" situation that such love this side of heaven often meets with sacrifice and even crucifixion (figuratively or even literally). For me, carrying the cross is a matter of patiently bearing the tension between the real and the ideal. Another way of putting it is that the Cross points to a God who loves so much that he doesn't allow the ideal to get in the way of the real nor the real to compromise the ideal. For example, Jesus in his life and ministry proclaimed unfailingly and uncompromisingly the Reign of God. He put the "ideal" of God's love out there for all to see, hear, touch, and feel. However, while he proclaimed that ideal in uncompromising fashion, he still embraced the reality that for many of his hearers, this "Kingdom of God" business would take some time to warm up to. He dined with the full spectrum of that "reality": sinners and self-righteous alike. Jesus, you might say, didn't let the "ideal" get in the way of also expressing God's love for the reality of a sinful, broken, wounded, and wounding world. The "flip-side" of this is that Jesus also didn't allow the "real" to compromise the "ideal." Take for example Jesus' tender embrace of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:11): on the one hand Jesus tells her he does not condemn her, on the other hand he tells her to go "and sin no more" (i.e., go and live a transformed life in God's love).

We live in a world that is seemingly "under siege" by reactionary persons and movements that proclaim in so many words, "it's my way or the highway." In other words, they impose an ideal on the real in a way that brings animosity, contempt, and even violence. This is not the way of the Cross. Carrying the Cross implies proclaiming the ideal of God's love for the world but than being willing to pay the price of that love by facing, and even embracing, the real in all of it's difficulty and complexity - remembering the words of John, "God did not send his son to condemn the world but to save the world through him." (John 3:17). Pat, TOR