Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Anatomy of a Calling (Feast of St. Andrew, Apostle)

In celebrating the Feast of St. Andrew, the Apostle, the Church puts before us for consideration the call of the first disciples (Peter, Andrew, James and John) from the Gospel of Matthew (Mt. 4:18-22). The story, while very brief, gives us food for thought regarding the "anatomy" of God and Christ's call in our lives. The calling begins with Jesus approaching the future disciples and instructing them to "come after him." Scripture scholars note that this would have been rather peculiar for Jesus to do. Most often, persons sought out a teacher rather than vice versa. Yet Jesus was radically different than the charismatic, "cults of personality" of his day. Rather than insist persons come to him on his terms for affiliation or instruction, he was constantly and incessantly reaching out to others and meeting them where they were.

Jesus' reputation likely preceded him to some degree and he must have also been charismatic because the disciples don't hesitate to set aside their daily responsibilities and immediately set out with him. As a matter of fact, Jesus alludes to the fact that his calling will result in the transformation of their lives when he says to Peter and Andrew, "come after me and I will make you fishers of men." In a sense, therefore, the disciples accept the invitation with the initial, unconditional acceptance that life as they know it is about to change in ways they never could have imagined.

However, this "initial, unconditional acceptance" of the disciples concerning precisely how their life would change gave way to many misunderstandings of Jesus, bumbling (especially on the part of Peter), resistance to his message, efforts to actively dissuade him from embracing his passion, jockeying for positions of primacy, and even denial and betrayal. The disciples got a lot more than what they bargained for!

That might be a really good way to summarize the "anatomy" of a calling by God: getting infinitely more than what we bargained for! The call and the one who calls is attractive and compelling: God is a great and even "restless" adventurer who has bold plans for our lives and world! God can captivate our minds, hearts, and imaginations so much that we assent to God's call with an "initial, unconditional acceptance." Like the disciples, however, following after Christ means eventual misunderstanding, bumbling, resistance, and perhaps even denial of what carrying the Cross means for our life and life's mission. We needn't be at all perturbed by this, however. The most important aspect of God's call is that it is progressive: note that Jesus says "I will make you fishers of men" and not, "you are fishers of men." What this means is that we can rest assured and trust that the God who calls is also the God who picks us up time and again, no matter how many times we stumble and fall. Pat, TOR

Monday, November 29, 2010

A God Who Stacks the Deck in the Direction of Salvation

Up until the latter half of the last century, Christian spirituality and theology for centuries had a tendency to make a strict separation between the "natural" world and the "supernatural." The natural world was the fallen realm, largely "alienated" from God's solicitude and totally dependent on God's merciful, "external" outreach for any hope of realizing good or being saved. The supernatural world was the locus of God's presence and "storehouse" of God's grace that God would dispense upon creation "from above." This view of "natural" versus "supernatural" made it at times seem that the "deck" was stacked in the direction of the world largely being destined for God's wrath and judgment!

The last sixty years or so have brought a tremendous change and transformation in this regard. One example of this is the pervasive influence of the theology of the Catholic Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner. His name and theology can be found in nearly every introductory or serious book on Catholic theology. His take on the world, and especially the human person, began fueling a much different idea concerning how God "stacks the deck."

According to Rahner, the human person is "spirit in the world" and "hearer of the word." What this means is that God fashioned humanity in such a way that the human spirit would be "at home" in the natural world and that true spirituality can only be formed in and through a dynamic and integral relationship to this world. Additionally, humans are by nature open and receptive to receiving communication from others, and, above all, from God. This makes humans, "hearers of the word" at the ground and core of truly human being. By describing humans as "spirit in the world" and "hearers of the word", Rahner was indicating that authentic human being is also human becoming - meaning, persons are intended to constantly grow in their spirituality and their ability to receive and respond to God's self-communication. The height of this process of growth of the entire human family is reached in and through the Incarnation of God's word in the person of Jesus Christ. In and through the life of Jesus, human spirituality reaches it's summit and the human capacity for hearing the word reaches fullness of comprehension and acceptance. What is the message from God received by Christ and communicated through him as unparalleled Good News?

The very basic message sent to us by God in Jesus is that God is fully with us and fully for us. There are no heights nor depths that we can go to that God will not be there in order to speak a word of presence, participation, transformation, and salvation. In today's Gospel from Mass, Jesus tells his disciples that, "many will come from the east and west and recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph at the banquet in the Kingdom of Heaven." Rahner's profound insights into the human condition and this Gospel teaching witness to the definitive truth that our God is a God who "stacks the deck" in the direction of salvation. Pat, TOR

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Advent Memory: Remembering Through Reenactment

When we ponder past "peak" events in our life such as the day of our marriage, graduation, anniversaries of one kind or another, the birth of a child, etc... we do so not only to recollect the past, but also as a way of bringing to mind the promise that the event held for our lives so as to relive that promise in the present and even into the future. I call this kind of remembering, "remembering through reenactment." This mode of remembering is very active and seeks to make the event and it's promise a present and future reality. Such an "active" mode of memory is very different from "remembering through recollection." When we remember something through recollection, we are merely looking back into our past to recall an event without necessarily intending to make the implications of the event relevant for our present or future.

We celebrate the season of Advent in order to remember the birth, or, Incarnation, of God into our world in Jesus Christ. But our mode of remembering is not at all meant to be a mere passive "recollection" of an event that happened 2,000 plus years ago. Quite to the contrary, if we hope to make the most out of this season of preparing for Christmas, our memory must be an active, enlivening mode of "remembering through reenactment". In other words, preparing to celebrate the anniversary of Christ's Incarnation implies "re-incarnating" the promises of Christ's life in our own life. The event of Advent and Christmas, in a very real sense, is less about Christ's birth in the past than Christ's rebirth in the present and future in-and-through the lives of those who live in him.

Jesus' teaching in today's Gospel (Matthew, 24:37-44) regarding the two pairs of workers may very well allude to discipleship as a fundamental mode of living with an active awareness of "re-incarnating" Jesus' life and the values of the Kingdom through the daily events that make up our lives and world. The above teaching is given in the context of Jesus alerting his disciples about the end of time and what the signs of that time will be. He tells them, "Two men will be out in the field, one will be taken, one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill, one will be taken, one will be left. Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come."

Obviously, the teaching doesn't have to do with literally being "awake" (both pairs of workers are physically alert) but points to the importance of having a certain kind of attentiveness, basic attitude, or orientation in going about one's daily duties. One person is taken and the other is left because only one of the pair was living in a mode of "re-incarnating" the life of Christ and the values of the Kingdom in their daily activities. It's important to note that both pairs of persons are doing very "mundane" or normal activities: working in the field and in a mill. This is a clear allusion to the fact that Jesus' life and Kingdom can be embodied where ever we find ourselves and in what ever activities we are engaged. What is essential at the end of the day is not so much what we do but how we do what we do and, above all, how we live our lives. By remembering Jesus' incarnation in an active mode of "remembering through reenactment" we can rest assured that God will show us through the Spirit within us how we are to "re-incarnate" the values of the Kingdom and Jesus' own presence not only for our lives, but for others lives, and, above all, for the life of the world. Pat, TOR

Saturday, November 27, 2010

To "Stand Before The Son of Man" in Eternal Life Means to "Stand Beside Him" in This Life

In today's Gospel for Mass from Luke (Luke 21:31-46), Jesus is issuing general, "broad-strokes" (meaning not overly-specific) prognostications to his disciples about what his Second Coming will be like. He states in very dramatic fashion, "For that day will assault everyone on the face of the earth. Be vigilant at all times, and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man."

"That day" refers to the "day of the Lord," a theme that has deep roots in the Old Testament scriptures. It implies the full, final, and definitive reckoning or accounting of human history in the societal, interpersonal, and personal sense. The notion of the day of the Lord "assaulting" people speaks not to it's "forcefulness" so much as to it's "inevitability" and the utter impossibility of escaping it.

What may be of particular value to discerning the meaning of this Gospel passage for our own day is the fact that Jesus is not using the second person singular "you" in addressing the disciples, but, rather, is using the third person plural "you" (meaning, "all of you"). The importance of this is namely that it implies that salvation is not an individual or personal affair but is only worked out practically and meaningfully in the context of relationship and a commitment to community. No one person "gains" eternal life in a vacuum! As a matter of fact, some have defined "hell" as utter isolation and alienation from others; it is, in essence, the eternal state of existing "as an island unto one's self" - or, the eternal state of a "navel-gazing-self-consumed-vacuum".

In a commentary that I was reading in preparation for this Sunday's Mass, it referred to a preacher who made the astute and provocative statement that, when we arrive in heaven, Christ's first question to us will be, "and where are all the others?" What this means, in so many words, is that to "stand before the Son of Man" in eternal life, we must supportively "stand beside the Son of Man" as he is present in each person, the body of believers as a whole, and those whom he most identified with on earth: the poor, marginated, and needy. Pat, TOR

Friday, November 26, 2010

What We Await is a New Heavens and a New Earth (2 Peter 3:13)

When Christians talk about eternal life, they usually, almost without exception, describe it as "going to heaven." The notion of eternal life as, "going to heaven" conjures up images of myriads upon myriads of saints and angles gathered in the midst of the glory of God and singing God's praises. As comforting as this image may be, it may not be very compelling in stimulating and mobilizing our faith to work towards the full-flourishing of God's Reign in this world and in this life. Furthermore, the notion of eternal life consisting of heaven alone is not even very accurate given the scriptural testimony of what lies ahead.

Today's first reading for Mass from the Book of Revelation gives a fuller account of our eternal destiny. It describes eternal life in terms of, "a New Heavens and a New Earth." This metaphor was not an invention of the author of Revelations, it has ancient Old Testament roots and can also be found in one other place in the New Testament. The New Heavens and New Earth is first mentioned in the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Isaiah, 65:17: "see I will create a new heavens and a new earth, the former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind." This metaphor is mentioned in the New Testament in 2 Peter 3:13: "but in keeping with his promise, what we await is a new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness dwells."

To stress the importance of this metaphor in terms of it's weighty implications for the way we imagine eternal life, the Catechism of the Catholic Church has an entire section devoted to elaborating on the New Heavens and New Earth (see Part One of, "The Profession of Faith", Article 12, "I Believe in Everlasting Life," section VI, "The Hope of The New Heaven and the New Earth). This section begins with the statement: "At the end of time, The Kingdom of God will come in its fullness. After the universal judgment, the righteous will reign for ever with Christ, glorified in body and soul. The universe itself will be renewed.

What are the "weighty" implications of the notion that our eternal destiny consists not merely in "going to heaven" but going to "the new heavens and new earth?" One of the implications is that this metaphor provides a compelling incentive for living on the earth and in the world in a mode of great care for the earth and great concern for the world. It implies having a robust vision of the earth and world that is to come and working to sow the seeds of the righteousness and justice that are destined to come to full maturity. Finally, the metaphor of the New Heavens and New Earth means that the physical, embodied aspect of existence has an eternal destiny in the heart of God. This is, in part, what we celebrate at Christmas: the fact that "God so loved the world that he sent his only Son" (John 3:16). Pat, TOR

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving for the God Touched, Reached, and Released in Our Lives and World

Today many will come together from near and far to share in feasting, family, and friendship. Some who are unable to gather with friends or family will be gathered-in-spirit by their loved ones and held close to heart. The rich fare of food, family, and friendship is a sign, symbol, and sacrament of the more profound reason for gathering and giving thanks. The food and those present in body or spirit signify, embody, and make tangibly present the God who we give thanks to and, more importantly, the God who we give thanks for.

The second reading from today's Mass is an outpouring of thanksgiving from the Apostle Paul to the Colossian Church. Through his ongoing connection and relationship with the persons in this community, Christ and the Holy Spirit have been thoroughly woven throughout their lives. Paul's ministry to them, and their support of him, has resulted in the Living God, who exists ever-so-humbly-and-unassumingly at the heart of all creation, being touched, reached, and released into their lives.

The Gospel for Mass tells the story of Jesus and the ten lepers who cry out to him for a cure. Jesus, of course, kindly obliges and they are all healed of their malady. One of the ten comes back to Jesus to give thanks. The important element here, ironically enough, is not the gesture of thanks but what Jesus says to the person: YOUR faith has saved you! This isn't Jesus trying to deflect credit for the role he played in healing the person. Rather, this is a profound statement by Luke regarding how salvation unfolds through, with, and in Christ: Christ touches the life of the other, Christ reaches into the life of the other, and Christ releases through the faith of the other the Living God who dwells in the heart of all creation.

Today's celebration is not only about giving "thanks" TO God for all that makes life worth living and loving. Today we give thanks FOR God who has been touched, reached, and released into our lives, the lives of those we have impacted in the self-same way, and even the life of the world. Pat, TOR

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Contemporary Equivalent of the "Beast" in the Book of Revelation

The Book of Revelation is far-and-away the most misunderstood and misinterpreted book in the entire Bible. This is due to the highly symbolic and cryptic manner in which the book was written. It was written this way due to the intense persecution surrounding the Church at that time (around 70-95 AD). The purpose of the book was to lend support to Christians during the period and serve as an exhortation to endure whatever persecution might come, holding fast to the hope that God would be victorious in the end. Unfortunately, many persons throughout the ages have tried to look into this highly complex book as if it were a "crystal ball", able to interpret events it was not meant to or precisely predict a future it never tried to. This is perhaps no more the case than with the mysterious reference to the diabolical "Beast" (13:17) and the "number of the Beast", 666 (13:18).

In today's reading from Revelation for daily Mass (15:1-4), the mysterious "Beast" is again mentioned as are those who were "victorious" over the beast. For the original audience, the "beast" would have likely represented the Roman Emperor at that time, Nero (the Catholic Study Bible and other commentaries identify the number 666 as being the "numerical equivalent" of the name "Nero"). However, down through the ages many have grossly distorted this original meaning of the beast/666 and applied it to persons or institutions they didn't like or thought were evil incarnate. This leaves us with the question, if the Book of Revelation spoke to a specific time period and events contained therein, what is to be derived from the book in our day?

With regard to this mysterious book, I think it is helpful to speak of a "specific" interpretation and a "universal" interpretation. The specific interpretation refers to what the book likely meant to it's original hearers (as far as we are able to discern this). A universal approach to the book would interpret symbols such as the "beast/666" as a general (or "universal") symbol of the forces of evil at work in the world. When we make use of a "universal" interpretative approach to the book, we can derive general themes that are applicable regardless of what time period one is living in.

For example, in a general or universal sense, the "beast" in today's reading refers to the forces or "systems" in our world that degrade, tear at, or altogether destroy the dignity and integrity of God's creation and the human person or community. Such an interpretation also sheds light on the "saints" in today's reading who are victorious over the "beast": they are the persons or groups who allow themselves to be disturbed, distressed, and moved-to-action by the troubling reality of evil and impersonal "systems" that produce it. They confront the many "beasts" of our world head-on and do whatever they can to raise awareness and bring about the change in the world that they are able. The meaning of the Book of Revelation, far from being "frozen in time", is perhaps more relevant than ever: it is meant to motivate, move, and mobilize the Christian faithful to acknowledge the impersonal and destructive "systems" that exist in our world and to work to challenge and change them into forces that are at the service of God's Reign. Pat, TOR

Monday, November 22, 2010

"Small is Beautiful" in Today's Gospel and in Today's World

"When Jesus looked up he saw some wealthy people
 putting their offerings into the treasury 
and he noticed a poor widow putting in two small coins.
 He said, “I tell you truly, 
this poor widow put in more than all the rest;
 for those others have all made offerings from their surplus wealth, 
but she, from her poverty, has offered her whole livelihood.” (Luke, 21:1-4)

In his recent book, "Eaarth", Bill McKibbon, a "shoot-from-the-hip", "no-holds-barred" expert on the current, precarious state-of-affairs of our environment, tells the story of the Club of Rome, a group of European industrialists and scientists who commissioned a team of experts back in the 1960's to do an "actuarial" study (which derives precise prognostications about future possibilities in various measurable areas of life based on trends, statistics, and other relevant information) on the likely scenario facing the environment if current economic trends held true (at this time the trend was toward unlimited growth). The results of the study, published in the best-selling book, Limits to Growth(1972) indicated that economic policies would push the environment to a dangerous tipping point that would be irreparable and irreversible. According to McKibbon, these prognostications have largely been proved correct through the affects of climate change that the world is already experiencing.

Two years after this watershed book was published, another book along similar lines became a best-seller entitled, Small is Beautiful. As the title suggests, the book made a compelling case for the need to "return to the basics" of life and to "downsize" our bloated ideas about economics, consumerism, and what truly constitutes the "good life." Today's Gospel from Mass about the widow who gave two small coins and received Jesus' praise is along the same lines of this philosophy.

With the Kingdom of God as his filter for seeing the world and all people, Jesus places before us in this incident what constitutes true greatness and magnificence in the eyes of God. No doubt the widow, in the smallness of her social stature and donation to the temple treasury, was probably largely overlooked by nearly everyone around her. Nevertheless, Jesus declares with a tinge of high irony, no doubt, that it is precisely the widow's smallness that makes for greatness in God's Kingdom. Her smallness isn't constituted so much by her social stature nor donation, but in the fact that she gives from the depths of her humility the totality of who she is to God. She recognizes her "littleness" in the sight of God and isn't afraid to therefore give everything because she realizes God will be faithful in his reception of her gift and in returning far more than she ever could have expected.

Small is indeed beautiful! We needn't be afraid, therefore, to recognize our own, true stature before God and to entrust ourselves completely to the One who will always receive our gift graciously and multiply it far beyond our wildest dreams! When we leave it up to God to make greatness out of littleness, we are free to live without having to put on airs or gloss: free to live and love as children of God and brothers and sisters to one another and every creature. Pat, TOR

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Christ's Kingship an "Organic" Kingship

At the end of every liturgical year, the Church celebrates the Feast of Christ the King. One of the reasons for this is to etch into our awareness that Jesus is Lord of all, Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end of all things. When we speak of Christ as a "King" we mean something radically different than what is normally associated with royalty. Christ's Kingship is integral and universal in scope. Christ's Kingship is integral because it is the unifying and vivifying principle at the heart of all creation and life itself. Christ's Kingship is also universal in the sense that there is not a single creature or event (to include death itself) that is not in some way affected either directly or indirectly by Christ.

To use a term that has become increasingly popular in the last several years, it would be very accurate to say that Christ's Kingship is "organic" in nature. It forms an integral part of creation and, of course, God's plan of salvation. The second reading from today's Mass from Paul's Letter to the Colossians is a "hymn" to Christ which dramatically illustrates the "organic" or "integral" character of Christ's Kingship. Paul states that, "For in him were created all things," "all things were created through him and for him," "in him all things hold together."

According to Paul's "integral" or "organic" way of seeing the mystery of Christ in all creation, there is not a creature that is not created through him, with him, and in him (think of the doxology of Mass, when the priest elevates the host above the chalice at the conclusion of the Eucharistic prayer and sings these same words!). Every creature is therefore grounded in Christ, dynamically related to Christ, and, in some mysterious way, destined for Christ. To refer back to the illustration I used for yesterday's blog (which is also pictured above), if life were conceived in terms of being a "web", the center that holds all things together and collectively animates them is Christ.

If we continue with the metaphor of Christ being the "organic" center of the web of life, the implications of this great celebration of Christ the King becomes more apparent. Christ as King or "organic" center implies that our lives and world are held together by the Lord even when faced with the greatest threats to their integrity and unity. The web of our world and lives have perhaps never been so strained or even broken as now. Our world faces the threat of economic collapse largely because of flawed and arrogant philosophies of "unlimited growth," our climate is changing for the worse, the disparity between rich and poor is growing and the middle-class is shrinking, wars and genocide continue scarring the earth - life seems to be hanging on by the barest of threads in so many areas. On a more personal level, who of us have not been touched by the ravages of abuse or neglect of one kind or another, failed relationships, betrayal of trust, dysfunctional family dynamics, and many other threats besides? How is it that we hang on?

Maybe this Feast Day is precisely about recognizing that it's not so much "we" who hang on, but Christ who hangs on to us. With Christ as King and "organic" center of our lives and world, he hangs on to us when our lives hang on by the barest of threads! Even when we succumb to deep distress or maybe even despair, Christ can reach and hang onto us even there. For, the Lord who is King of Life, by virtue of dying and rising, is also King over death! All we are invited to do this day is to begin recognizing Christ's Kingship over our world and invite him to be more and more King and center of our lives. When we begin doing this more deliberately, Christ "through us, with us, and in us" can begin healing and restoring the web of life that is our lives, our relationships, and our world. Pat, TOR

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Faith Illustration: Christ At the Heart of The Web of Life

The science of ecology is a relatively new branch of scientific discipline that arose at the turn of the 20th century and became popular in the 1960's. The science is a subfield of biology that studies the phenomena of the relation of an organism with other organisms and the environment. The field of ecology is becoming much more prominent in the 21st century due to the effects of climate change. Because of the growing influence of ecology and the crisis of climate change, Christian theology and spirituality has also been actively engaging the discipline. As a matter of fact, a subfield of theology has emerged in the last ten years or so that is referred to as "ecological theology" or "environmental theology." The point and purpose of such a theology and corresponding spirituality is to adapt the Christian faith in such a way that "faith resources" can be mobilized to address how Christians might live and witness in the midst of one of the greatest crises to ever face the earth community.

In the last twenty years the teaching magisterium of the Catholic Church has also begun addressing the issue of climate change and the degradation of creation. In 1990, Pope John Paul II devoted his World Day Message of Peace to the theme of caring for creation (Peace with God, Peace with All Creation). Similarly, Pope Benedict XVI devoted his World Day Message of Peace to the same theme in 2010 (If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation). In 1995 the Bishops Conference of Appalachia wrote a document entitled, At Home in The Web of Life. The document was written in response to ecologically ruinous practices such as "mountain top removal" mining and the ill-effects these practices were having not only on the environment but especially on the poor who depend on a healthy Appalachian eco-system for their livelihood.

The metaphor of life as an intricate and delicate "web" made up of interconnected and interdependent systems of life has been gaining quite a bit of currency in ecology and theology and can also be adapted to reflect Christian convictions. For Christians, life is not a web that was assembled willy-nilly nor haphazardly. The Gospel of John states: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people." What this suggests for the Christian is that, at the center, or heart, of the web of life is Christ as the "governing principle" of creation. This governing principle is the same that is at the very heart of the relationship of the Trinity: mutual inherence and mutual interdependence.

"Mutual inherence" implies the recognition and full, unconditional acceptance of the other as "other" and allowing the uniqueness of the other to enter into our lives as such (without trying to manipulate or control). Mutual interdependence flows forth from mutual inherence: it is an interdependence that brings out the fullness of the ones who relate and brings to a fullness the relationship itself (what we refer to as "Holy Spirit" in the life of the Trinity). The above illustration of the web of life with the symbol of the Chi Rho (an ancient symbol of Christ) in the center is a call for Christians to recognize that we ultimately care for creation in order to promote the mutual inherence and mutual interdependence of all forms of life so that the world might be prepared for total consummation and communion with God who desires to be "all in all." Pat, TOR

Friday, November 19, 2010

The "Sweet and Sour" Flavor of Prophetic Ministry

Today's first reading from Mass comes again from the Book of Revelation and is as "cryptic" and mysterious as yesterday's reading about the scroll with the seven seals. The author, who identifies himself as John, is instructed (presumably by the Lord) to receive an open scroll from the hand of an angel and to swallow it. The scroll tastes sweet in the mouth but than turns sour in the stomach. What might this mean? This scroll sounds more like sauce for an egg roll than God's sacred writ!

In delving into the mystery of the "sweet and sour" scroll, it's very helpful to know that the author of the Book of Revelation was very much influenced by the apocalyptic genre of the Old Testament Scriptures. He borrowed images and metaphors from prophetic texts such as Ezekiel and Daniel. Scripture scholars believe that the above mentioned vision was likely influenced by a very similar event in the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel (2:8-3:3). In that text, Ezekiel is likewise instructed to eat a scroll. The difference between the two "scroll eating" episodes is that in Ezekiel the scroll only tastes sweet and doesn't become sour. The importance of knowing the Old Testament precedent to John's vision is that it allows us to juxtapose both visions in order to discern what is common to both, what is different, and how to interpret what John's vision means based on both similarity and dissimilarity to Ezekiel's vision.

The obvious similarity is the swallowing of the scroll and it's sweetness. According to the Harper Collins Study Bible, eating a scroll "signifies accepting a prophetic commission." It means to have one's lips, tongue, imagination, heart, spirit, and soul animated and so thoroughly penetrated by God's word that one's life essentially becomes an "ambassadorship" of that word. In general, "sweetness" of the word corresponds to what every word of God points to: the covenantal promises of God and the call of God to covenantal fidelity. The Catholic Study Bible also states that the sweetness of the scroll in the text from Revelation is a promise of God's ultimate victory over sin, the forces of evil, and death itself. The sourness of the word in John is, of course, the glaring difference with Ezekiel's vision. The aforementioned Catholic Study Bible indicates that the sourness corresponds to the intense persecution of the Church by Roman authorities during the time of John.

Today's reading from Revelation offers us insight into the "sweet and sour" flavor of prophetic ministry (something every Christian is called to by virtue of being baptized "priest, prophet, and king" in the manner that Jesus exercised these roles). The prophetic ministry begins with frequent "tasting" and even "noshing" on the word of God to release it's "sweet" implications for our lives and world (the covenant promises of God's abiding, strengthening, healing, redeeming, and transformative presence). However, the ministry of prophecy also means digesting and putting the word back out into the world (especially through the witness of our lives) in such a way that it can be impactful to others. This, of course, is risky business! If we put the word, and ourselves who have been and are being transformed by the word, "out there" it will bring both acceptance and rejection. However, we needn't be overly concerned how the word, and the witness of our lives, is received. Above all today's vision assures us that God will be there to support us no matter what and that his word will ultimately be victorious in our lives and world! Pat, TOR

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Unrolling the "Scroll" of Our Lives

The book of Revelation is one of the most cryptic and vividly symbolic books of the entire Bible. It was written at a time of unparalleled persecution of the Church by the authorities of Rome. This is likely the reason the book is so highly "encoded" in numbers and symbols that would have been well understood by it's original audience but remains forever shrouded in mist to those of us who read the book today.

Nevertheless, some general themes and points come across quite clearly. Such is the case with today's first reading for Mass from Revelation. The "scene" from today's reading is that of a veritable "assembly" of the elect in God's "Holy Court" at the time of final reckoning (e.g., the "wrapping up", "bringing to a close", or "consummation" of salvation history). All who are gathered are anxiously awaiting the opening of a scroll with seven seals which will begin the process of bringing things to a close and consummation. However, the only one who is able to open the scroll is the "Lamb that was slain", Jesus Christ, the Author and Lord of saving history. With the opening of the scroll a series of apocalyptic events unfolds that will bring salvation history to its "consummating conclusion."

What is this "consummating conclusion"? Taking our cue from the One who alone is worthy to "unroll the scroll", the fact that the Redeemer of all opens it suggests that the inevitable conclusion is the definitive and irrevocable overcoming of death, sorrow, hatred, despair, distress, the wiping away of every tear, and the healing of every broken memory and relationship. It is the Resurrection to newness of life not only persons but every true hope sewn by faith in the field of our lives and world. It is the dawning of the New Heavens and New Earth that bear the scars of the loving struggle that preceded it but now in glorious and beautiful fashion, in the self-same way that Christ still bears his scars of love.

We needn't wait until the end of time in order to begin experiencing a foretaste of this consummating conclusion. In a very real sense, each of our lives is a small "s" scroll and chapter of the larger "S" Scroll of salvation history. The key is to allow the Lord to unroll the scroll of the history of our lives in order to experience a bit of the hope that we have for it's final and glorious redemption. What this practically implies is looking back on our history in all of it's complexity, difficulty, and glory with Christ and the Holy Spirit beside us and allowing a "redemptive" conversation to ensue about the events, especially the painful ones. What we will discover is that the Lord of Life and Glory is capable of transforming even some of the darkest moments into new possibilities for life and love. All we need to do is partner with Christ in "unrolling the scroll." Pat, TOR

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The "Currency" of the Kingdom

Chapter 19 of the Gospel of Luke (part of which comprises today's Gospel for the Mass) has Jesus on the "home-stretch" to Jerusalem where he will undergo his passion. Much of Jesus' teachings and parables "on the road" to Jerusalem have focused on the Kingdom of God. From chapter 9 (where the journey motif begins) to chapter 19 (where it ends), the Kingdom of God is mentioned 21 times! Today's parable about a King who receives a Kingdom (Luke 19:11-28) may also reveal something insightful about the Kingdom or reign of God itself.

The parable tells the tale of a man who went away from his territory in order to be officially made "king" and returned to rule over his land. Being quite industrious, before he goes he disburses monies to his servants (the amount disbursed commensurate with their abilities) and instructs them to "engage in business" during his absence. Upon his return as king, he calls his servants to account and finds that two out of the three invested wisely and the other simply hid his money out of fear. The two who invested their money are commended and given positions of leadership while the last has his one and only coin taken away. At one level, the story is used by Luke to emphasize that despite Jesus' impending passion and humiliating death, he will inevitably reign as Lord of all. At another level, the parable illustrates the dynamics of the Kingdom or Reign of God.

As mentioned in previous blog reflections, this parable illustrates how the Kingdom of God comes as both "gift" and "task." Each of the three servants in the parable is "gifted" with money to do business with. The crux of the matter consists in what they do with the money, and, perhaps more importantly, how they "engage" with others in "doing business." This point illuminates how the dynamics of the Kingdom operate in our midst. The Kingdom or Reign of God grows every so subtly and "organically" in and through the efforts and gifts of those who "put themselves out there" by "engaging" in the "business" of sewing the seeds of the Reign in their everyday affairs. This requires on the part of the one "engaging in business" a fundamental awareness of the "call of the Kingdom", what it consists of (justice, mercy, reconciliation, healing, transformation, selfless service, etc...), and the determination to work for it's realization in every aspect of life (personal, interpersonal, social, cultural, political, etc...)

The "currency" of the Kingdom, it would seem, is faith. The faith of receiving the "gift" of the Kingdom and than engaging in the business of investing one's self and gift(s) in a way to bring about the further flourishing of the Reign of God that is already in our midst and yet still on the way. Pat, TOR

Monday, November 15, 2010

How Different the World Appears When Beheld in Love

One of St. Francis of Assisi's most basic, yet profound, prayers was that he see himself for who he was and that he see God for who God is (as much as is possible). This prayer points to what is perhaps most constitutive of the act of love: "beholding" and being "beheld" in a mode of reverence, awe, respect, esteem, positive regard, and, above all, with an abiding sense of the profound, impenetrable mystery that lies at the heart of the world, the heart of each of our lives, and the divine heart of the Triune God.

When one "sees" one's self, others, and the world through the lens of a "contemplative" love that is able and willing to "behold" in the above way, the world takes on a fresh, bright, and at times "resiliently" hopeful appearance that can very definitely animate our awareness of the glory of God in our midst. The reason why I highlight the importance of being "willing" to see through the contemplative lens of love is because being open to the beauty of life simultaneously opens us to the tragedy which is also such a part of the world: the distress, the despair, the acute and massive suffering (especially among the most vulnerable and innocent) and the injustice running rampant. However, the importance of accepting both "sides of the coin" of "beholding" the world through the lens of contemplative love is that it impresses upon our minds and hearts that God is present not only in moments of glory but is especially attentive to moments of travail.

Today's first reading from Mass comes from the beginning of the Book of Revelation. This book was written in a time of great travail and persecution of the fledgling Christian movement by the Roman Empire. The opening of the book is comprised of a number of salutations and exhortations to the various Churches undergoing persecution. Today's reading is the salutation to the Church at Ephesus. The words addressed to this community from the Lord are on the whole very affirming: the Church apparently is persevering under the weight of a great deal of stress from within and persecution from without. But the Church is exhorted to return to "the first love" that it had for God. It would seem that the members of the Church of Ephesus are, in a sense "falling out of love with God"!

Would you find it a bit of a stretch or surprising if I suggested that we are called to "be in love with God?" This notion has very ancient Old Testament roots: the poet who authored psalm 69 wrote the provocative words, "as a deer longs for running streams, so my soul yearns for you, my God." The Song of Songs is even more replete with stunning images that suggest God is a lover who never ceases to pursue us! The key to entering, reentering, and deepening our love for God is to begin "lowering" our "defenses" and allowing ourselves and the mystery of our lives to be "beheld" in loving awe and reverence by God. Practically speaking, this can happen by spending time with persons and friends who know something of the mystery of life and the mystery of who we are and can be genuinely attentive to it. Another method is to pray with scripture (such as psalm 69 or The Song of Songs) in an imaginative way, entering into the scene and imagining that we are the one's thirsting for God or that God is pursuing us! When we begin this process we are opened more and more to how different the world appears, in all it's glory and all it's travail, when beheld in love! Pat, TOR

Sunday, November 14, 2010

To Be Prepared for the End, Strive to Remain in the Middle!

This weekend's readings for Mass and next weekend's bring to a conclusion the Roman Catholic "liturgical calendar" and, therefore, appropriately focuses on the "end" of our lives and even the end of all things. This weekend's Gospel has Jesus making a prediction regarding the demise of the Jerusalem Temple (destroyed by the Romans in 70 a.d.) and than addressing the question of the disciple's concerning when this event would happen. This question seems to be a fairly "loaded one" given the length and breadth of Jesus' response and therefore we can speculate that the disciples were also asking about how history itself would come to a close.

Jesus' response to the disciple's question about the end is as follows: "See that you not be deceived,
for many will come in my name, saying,
'I am he,’ and 'The time has come.’
Do not follow them! 
Then he said to them,
"Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 
There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues
 from place to place;
and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky. Before all this happens, however, 
they will seize and persecute you,
 they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons,
 and they will have you led before kings and governors 
because of my name. 
It will lead to your giving testimony. 
Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand,
 for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking 
that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute. 
You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends,
 and they will put some of you to death. 
You will be hated by all because of my name,
 but not a hair on your head will be destroyed."

What is Jesus really talking about here? While a number of interpretations may be warranted, one general theme might be, "if you want to be prepared for the end, strive to remain in the middle." First, by "end" I mean the end that is one's personal life or the end which is the close of history (whichever comes first). By being prepared for the "end", I'm referring to the idea of "going before the light" of God's truth, goodness, and beauty in good conscience and hearing the words, "good and faithful servant, receive the Kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world." Now let's consider the "crux" of the matter: remaining in the middle.

In so many words, Jesus is saying to the disciples, do not obsess about the end of all things. Rather, this is how you are to live: do not take sides with one "worldly" Kingdom or nation over-and-against another; do not follow after the many quasi-saviors or "cults of personality" that promise they have the answers or they can bring salvation. If and when you do take sides, be on the side of the Gospel, the values of the Kingdom of God, and bear witness only to my life and my legacy of love.

To be a person who places the values of the Kingdom of God and witness to the legacy of Jesus Christ above everything else means to be a person "in the middle." Now, by "middle", please understand I don't mean "neutral"! The middle is the place of greatest tension. The middle is occupied by persons concerned with addressing the issues of our day and being a part of movements that seek to bring real reform and even transformation for the sake of the life of the world. Because such persons are so focused on addressing and solving issues through the application of Gospel values, they don't over-identify with any one nation, person, or party and therefore aren't likely to be duped by empty rhetoric and facile solutions to very complex problems.

Jim Wallis, director of Sojourners, a Christian social action organization, has this to say about the need for "Gospel-minded", "middle-of-the-road types": "Instead of just sitting back and watching how things go, an empowered new electorate must push the country deeper into our best shared values, understand the need for social movements in making social change, and act to hold both political sides accountable in trying to actually solve the country's greatest challenges, instead of just winning and keeping power.

We have to focus on the spiritual and moral values that bring us together; that choose the common good over private gain, inclusiveness over intolerance, civility over shouting, long term over short term, integrity over celebrity, justice over excuses, morality over expediency, stewardship over consumption, truth over spin, patient persistence over immediate results, and finally, right over wrong. 

These are the values that work for our personal lives, for teaching our children, for leading our congregations, for changing our communities, for holding politicians accountable, and for creating the social movements that make a difference."

Ultimately, those who will make a difference are those who meet in the middle, where the "crux of commitment" to bring about real and lasting change truly lies. Pat, TOR

Saturday, November 13, 2010

"For They Have 'Set Out' For the Sake of The Name." (3 John 7)

The third letter from John is extremely brief and focuses on the early missionary work of the Church. It is addressed to a fellow Church member named Gaius and deals with the practical issue of the need to provide support for those who are "on the road", spreading the Good News. While less theological and spiritual in it's tenor, the letter still provides an important glimpse into the fledgling movement and it's own self-perception.

In verse 7 of today's first reading from the Mass, John refers to his missionaries as those who "have set out for the sake of the name." This hearkens to perhaps the earliest self-perception and articulation by the Church of what would later be referred to as Christianity. Initially, this movement was referred to as "the Way."

It is quite interesting to speculate why the early movement chose this mode of self-identification. While we don't know precisely why they chose this "title", it is worthwhile to mull it over a bit and to consider what the implications of this speculation might offer our own following of the Lord and his "Way."

To begin with, Jesus' own self-identification (or lack-thereof) no doubt largely influenced the early Church's self-perception and it's mission. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus largely refers to himself as the "son of Man" (a more prophetic title) and, when referred to by the disciples as "Messiah", he swears them to secrecy! Jesus very definitely was not a self-promoter nor did he want to become a "cult of personality"! Rather, his message, especially in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, focused almost exclusively on the Reign or Kingdom of God. In other words, Jesus promoted a "Way" of living and being and not himself.

A theologian once remarked, "Jesus came and preached the Kingdom and now we are preaching Jesus." This remark is meant to be cautionary in nature. No doubt it is important for Christians to proclaim their faith in the birth, ministry, passion, death, and Resurrection of the Lord (more in deed than in word, however). At this point of history, it may be even more important, though, to hearken back to our earliest Christian roots and remember that we are also followers of a Way of life and, therefore, continually called to "set out" and proclaim God's Reign and Kingdom: the Good News of the possibility and invitation that all be made new. Pat, TOR

Friday, November 12, 2010

Love: The Alpha and Omega of Life

Today's readings from Mass speak of "beginnings" and "endings." In the first reading from the second letter of John, the author reminds his audience to return to the "beginning" of Gospel life: loving one another (2 John 4-9). In the Gospel of Luke (17:26-37), Jesus is telling his disciples about the signs that will accompany the end of time. Toward the end of today's Gospel, Jesus issues a teaching in the form of a paradox that is the sine qua non (an indispensable, non-negotiable action) of Christian life and being prepared "to go before the light": "whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses it will save it."

The whole of the Christian life and Christian spirituality, the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega, is reducible to the above teachings about love. This may seem easy enough, but in a culture that is so conflicted and communicates such mixed messages about what it means to love (usually focusing on the sensual and sappy :), what are we to make of the real "business" of loving implied by these two axioms?

To get to the heart of what Christian or God-like/Christ-like love implies, let's "unpack" a bit more Jesus' paradoxical, sine qua non teaching mentioned above. In talking about preserving and losing one's life, Jesus is really referring to what it means to love as God. Love implies self-gift: coming to "possession" of the gift that God first gave us in the form of our lives (a life-long process) and than "returning" this gift to God by giving the whole of ourselves to others (also a life-long process). Such a gift is, of course, not something that we wrap up in shiny, cellophane paper with a bow and a tag; rather, it implies a commitment to the well-being and life of others (especially those most vulnerable, weak, and least-loved).

The "other side" of the coin of Jesus' teaching is that if we lose ourselves by loving others, we will paradoxically save ourselves. This paradox can shed some very important light on the nature of love. The gift of one's self is not something that exists in a relational vacuum. We only come into possession of this gift by being dynamically and interdependently related to others. In other words, the gift of our "self" is received when it is reflected in the eyes and hearts of those who have loved us into being and loved us into becoming who God hopes for us to be. Think, for example, of a parent who raises a child in a wholesome environment where that child can grow to the full potential that he or she has. In a very real sense, the parent makes sacrifices even to the point of "losing themselves" for the sake of their son or daughter. In making such a sacrifice by parenting well, however, the parent doesn't only "lose themselves" in their child but "gains themselves" in a new, fuller way by seeing the child grow, flourish, and raise children of his or her own.

In a similar way, when we strive to commit ourselves to the well-being of others, we receive ourselves anew by sharing in the new life that the other experiences. This dynamic of life-begetting-life and love-begetting-love is a foretaste of the eternal "banquet" of life and love that we hope to share in the "new heavens and new earth." This is where Jesus' teaching in today's Gospel gets even better!

Seated at the "banquet table" with innumerable others, we will fully share and "feast" in the "harvest of life and love" that will be the fullness of the gift of ourselves interwoven in perfect communion with the gift of everyone else. The gift of love that we give will be radically eclipsed by the gift of love that we are to receive! Pat, TOR

Thursday, November 11, 2010

"Mining" For The Kingdom of God Within Us

Yesterday's blog entry focused on the "gushing goodness of God" and how it is meant to well up from within our lives, relationships, and our world. Today's Gospel from Mass gives us the opportunity to explore how to "receive" the gift of God's goodness (i.e., the Kingdom of God) or to "extract" the gift by "mining" for it deep within.

Jesus tells the disciples in so many words that the Kingdom isn't a socio-political agenda, nor someone who comes riding in on a white horse with the answers to all our problems, and is certainly not some "thing" that falls into our lap. As a matter of fact, the Kingdom of God is not observable at all! What is this "mercurial" (meaning impossible to hold on to) Kingdom anyhow?

In other places in the Gospels Jesus compares the Kingdom to a "mustard seed" that grows secretly and unassumingly, or leaven that works it's way invisibly through a batch of flour, or a "pearl of great price" that someone stumbles across in an empty field. While we cannot precisely and in a "categorical" way identify the Kingdom, this much can be said: it is a symbol of the utter-gratiuty and largesse of a God who in a very gentle, humble, unassuming way desires to surprise, delight, and partner with us in enhancing the good and "putting right" all that has gone so horribly wrong with our lives and world. The Kingdom of God, at bottom, is about the total transformation of all that is into all that can and should be. It is the sacrament of a God who refuses to be deterred or thwarted in the faith, hope, and dreams that he has for a world in which everything and everyone flourishes and pulses with abundant, and even ecstatic life.

You may be wondering at this point, "where can I get some of THAT!" (At least I hope you are :) There's a saying in Christian theology/spirituality that the Kingdom is both gift and task. In a general sense, the Kingdom is "gift" because it is God's very self. Karl Rahner, a great theologian of the last century couldn't have put it more succinctly when he said, "the Giver is himself the Gift." But if the "Giver", as mentioned before, is gentle, humble, and unassuming, than the Giver has to be sought out, and the "Gift" sometimes has to be "extracted" from deep within. This isn't because God is an ogre who gives begrudgingly but, rather, because the embrace of the "Gift" is an embrace of a person who is imminently personal. This implies it can only be fully received and can only fully well up from within when it is accepted and embraced in personal freedom. In other words, the welling up of the "Gift" is commensurate to our achievement of personhood and freedom.

There is so much in our lives and world that we have to "mine" through in order to fully "release" the Kingdom within. Many of us grapple with shame, failure, brokenness of one kind or another, hopes dashed, wounded self-esteem, etc... Our world suffers from systems that oppress, enslave, and from human-made or natural calamities that cause untold suffering. The promise of today's Gospel is that if we are willing to "roll up our sleeves" and bend low, God will never cease to be right alongside us helping us to "dig deep" within to extract the "pearl of great price" that is the divine heart of our lives and world. Pat, TOR

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The "Gushing" Goodness of God

"But when the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy, he saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our Savior" (Paul's Letter to Titus, 3:4-7). These words from today's first reading from Mass are similar to yesterday's reading from Ezekiel and blog reflection regarding the "flowing" goodness of God. However, God's goodness can be compared not only to a flowing river but even to a fountain that pours itself abundantly and unceasingly over all the earth.

If we return for a moment to the beginning of Chapter 47 of the book of the prophet Ezekiel (yesterday's first reading), we see that the river that flows from the temple began as a trickle, than quickly rose to ankle deep, and soon thereafter became a river that the prophet could not cross except by swimming. This speaks to how God's goodness can be a potential "gushing torrent" in our lives and world.

St. Bonaventure, a great Franciscan scholar of the 13th Century, wrote that God is "fontalis plenitudis", or, a fountain fullness of goodness that pours itself unceasingly and inexhaustibly upon the other in love (the other that is God's Son, Spirit, and all of Creation).

This might sound all, "well and good" in theory, but what about in reality? How can we "wax eloquently" about God's "gushing goodness" when the world at times seems so bereft of this goodness? Very often our world takes on the appearance not of an oasis bounded by God's love, but, quite the contrary, a parched desert pleading for just a drop of refreshment! Here's the "trick", as I see it: God's goodness is such that it manifests and rushes upon our lives and world most powerfully when it wells up from within us.

To go back to God's love as shared between Father, Son, and Spirit, the reason this love flows so powerfully within God is because it is perfectly accepted and reciprocated. God the Father may be the "fountain fullness" in relation to Son and Spirit, but Son and Spirit are also "tributaries" of this love, holding and giving this love seamlessly. Similarly, when we allow ourselves to be "tributaries" of God's love and to also be drawn into relationship with like-minded others, these "tributaries" combine to become a mighty and rushing river of "God's gushing goodness." Pat, TOR

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Eucharist: Source of "Powerfully Flowing" Life in Christ

Being a former soldier, from time to I like to make the comparison that the Mass is akin to "Basic Training." By this I mean that the Mass should ideally equip and empower us with the spiritual "skill set" to go out into the world and be instruments of peace, grace, and transformation. I use this analogy to emphasize the Church teaching that the Eucharist is not only the "summit" of Christian and Catholic life but is also the "source." Very often I wonder if we place too much emphasis on Eucharist as "summit" and not enough weight on Eucharist as a "source" of new-life-in-Christ. If we place too much emphasis on Eucharist as "summit", this can lead to the attitude that the Mass and celebration of the Eucharist is an "end in itself." Far from being an end, the liturgy and Eucharist are meant to be a "new beginning" for ourselves and the entire world. But this is only the case if we allow the "transformative energy" of the liturgy and Eucharist to flow out of the spaces and places in which we worship into every nook and cranny of our lives and world.

In today's first reading from Mass, we encounter a powerful image from the book of the prophet Ezekiel that can lend scriptural weight to the notion that Eucharist is meant to be the source of new, abundant, and even powerfully "flowing" life in Christ. Ezekiel has a vision of water flowing out of the temple (Ezekiel 47:1-2, 8-9, 12). This is no ordinary stream, mind you! Where ever this water flows, fruit trees bring forth luscious fruit that nourishes and leaves that heal, salty waters are made fresh, and fish and wildlife abound! This dramatic and prophetic vision throws into relief the fact that the purpose of God's covenant promises to Israel, the temple in Jerusalem, and temple worship are not meant to be "self-contained" but are to become a mighty stream that brings its healing waters to the entire world.

I recently remarked to a friend that when I preside at Mass, I sometime feel like a "conductor." What I meant by this is that there are times when I feel very much "caught up" in the "flow" of a cosmic symphony of grace that fires the worship assembly with a charge that is palpable. This "energy", "charge", or "flow", I believe, represents not merely what God wishes to accomplish in the liturgy of Eucharist but is meant to powerfully rush out into the world in order to transform it into what God hopes for it to more fully become: a liturgy of the world where life, healing, and transformation abound! Pat, TOR

Monday, November 8, 2010

November's Questions

"What are you looking for?" In the Gospel according to John, these are the first words out of Jesus' mouth! In response, the two disciples of John the Baptist, ask another question: "Rabbi, where are you staying?" Next follows the invitation to "Come and see."

November marks the closing days of the year and the Church asks us to consider a question quite similar to the one asked by Jesus. As our northern hemisphere moves into lengthening darkness, we are preparing for the turn that will eventually bring us into lengthening light. November starts us off considering the question posed to everyone, without exception, "What does your death mean for you?"

November starts us off celebrating the Feast of All Saints and All Souls and it ends with the beginning of Advent. It's about endings and beginnings; endings and beginnings. So, when we come to the end of something, Jesus' question applies: "What WERE you looking for?" As we begin, again, Jesus' question applies: "What are you looking for?" The fact of our own death is not a grim reminder; the "wet blanket" on the party of life. It is there to help make us real.

For the disciples of Jesus, death is never the "Grim Reaper". It is, in the words of Saint Franics, "our Sister Death." She comes to remind us of not only how precious and fleeting are our days on earth, but that death is our transition into fuller life.

November poses some more questions and I'd like to follow up with some of those later. For now, why not think about Jesus' first question: "What are you looking for?" Fr. Carl

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Faith Illustration: Healthy Dialogue Anchored in Knowledge of Self and the Divine

Yesterday's blog entry dealt with the notion that stability within one's self requires some form of interiority. Today's entry expands on this idea by proposing that healthy and fulfilling dialogue (and, by extension, relationships) must be "anchored" in knowledge of self and the divine (I use the word "divine" to include persons of all faiths). Before dealing with the illustration, I need to explain two key concepts: dialectic and projection.

In today's complex and diverse world, there is much mention of the need for dialogue. Dialogue is basically a conversation about some topic or topics that requires openness and receptivity on the part of the "dialogue partners". As much as this is no doubt needed, by beginning with dialogue, we may be "putting the cart before the horse." Prior to any fruitful dialogue taking place, a person must know to some degree, where they've been, where they "are", who they are, and who they hope to become/where they hope to be going. The art of being aware of these things and being able to articulate them has to do with dialectics or dialectical method. The aim of dialectics/dialectical method, in general, is to enter into dialogue with another person with the hope of being able to come to an appreciation of both perspectives and to establish common ground.

Obviously, to be able to be a good "dialectician" (no, this is not someone who teaches you how to eat healthily, that would be a "dietician" :) or dialogue partner, one must know one's self and where one "stands" in relation to some of the more important questions that comprise the mystery of life. Furthermore, when a person enters into dialogue or relationship with another, they "project" or "put their ideas or themselves out there" in various ways, whether consciously or unconsciously. The trick to healthy dialogue or relationship is to become aware of our consciously/unconsciously held ideas, presuppositions, biases, etc... and to "project" them or ourselves in as conscious and deliberate a manner as possible.

The above model suggests that there are two fundamental ways that a person "projects" themselves: in a non-dialectical, largely unconscious way and a dialectical, conscious way. The three "layers" of each circle corresponds to three strata of the mind and heart theorized by Carl Jung (a famous psychologist who was an associate of Freud). Without going into too much detail about Jung nor each layer, suffice it to say that the dark layer represents the totality of gifts, talents, hopes, fears, biases, convictions, etc...that a person "carries" within them. The blue layer pertains to the capacity to give and receive love, to be creative and productive, and to bring forth/nurture life (whether literally or figuratively). The innermost, yellow circle, pertains to one's capacity to mirror or reflect the "divine" spark within: to give, to serve, to love in an unconditional way, and to receive/give "fullness" of life.

When a person has little awareness of the above areas, they "project" themselves in a largely unconscious way (see circle above). This means that they may see in others (good, bad, ugly, glorious) what actually or potentially exists within themselves. They may also seek out in another (for example, the "divine spark") what they should be looking for, and can only realize, within themselves and in healthy relationship with others. Notice how all the layers in the above illustration are mixed, confused, and unintegrated. In contrast to the upper diagram, the below one represents a person who has clarity, depth and breadth of self awareness and awareness of the divine. Each layer is separated and integrated. At the core of their person and awareness of the divine, they are anchored, solid, and steady (notice the "anchor symbol" which is also a symbol of the Cross) The lines going out from the core and going through each layer represents communication that is deliberate, direct, clear and suffused with self-awareness.

This "faith illustration" represents a goal and a process. I'm not sure if any of us ever "arrive" at complete clarity with regard to all that makes up the mystery of our lives (bottom circle). However, to enter into healthy dialogue and to nurture healthy, fulfilling relationships, to some degree we must be anchored in the knowledge of ourselves and the divine and continue striving to realize these more fully within ourselves and in our relationships. Pat, TOR

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Secrets to Stability: Interiority and Communion

In Paul's letter to the Philippians, chapter 4 verses 12 and 13 (part of today's first reading from Mass), he relates how, through the strength of Christ, he has learned the "secret" of "being hungry and well fed", of "living in abundance and living in need." How did Paul come to learn or acquire this secret?

This weekend I am attending a conference in Cleveland for Catholic vocation directors. It's an opportunity to form supportive peer relationships, to "talk shop", and to be renewed and refreshed in spirit. One of the topics that arose in the context of a keynote speech, and that generated much subsequent discussion, was the notion of how important interiority is for being able to discern God's call for one's life. Very briefly, interiority refers to the habit or discipline of being "collected" or "gathered" on a routine basis to reflect and meditate upon one's life (and for the Christian, one's life-in-Christ). Interiority is the art of "space-making" and "offering hospitality" to our self, to God, and to others. In the words of St. Francis, it's about "making a home within ourselves for God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," (which also means making a home for others since love of God = love of neighbor).

The art of interiority also implies "mapping out" the contours of one's heart, spirit, and soul. This suggests an exciting journey in which we encounter not a "black and white", "desolate" space, but a "geography" with peaks and valleys, hinterlands and gently rolling grasslands, sheer cliffs that overlook either calm or tumultuous seas, deserts, tropical oasis, etc. Each one of these "places" within are obviously metaphors that represent various experiences and our life's history. I can remember when I first experienced part of the "geography" of my own heart, spirit, and soul. I was walking through snowy woods along a ridge and began going downhill toward a dark, shadowy area filled with pine trees. I distinctly remember being a bit fearful. My fear was stirred up because of moving into the "shadowlands" where I knew I wouldn't be able to see very well. Nevertheless, I plowed on. At the bottom of the hill was a stream that was partially frozen and partially flowing. This "shadowland" area and the partially frozen and flowing stream struck me powerfully as metaphors of experiences that I have had in the past (especially the experience of loss) and how loss, at times, adversely affects my capacity to love (symbolized by the partially frozen and flowing stream). In coming to know of this "terrain" within me, I am much more aware of who I am and what I need to do to "thaw out" those "icy parts" of the stream so that love can flow more readily in and out of my life (I'm happy to say a lot of thawing has happened since I had this experience :)

Another secret to stability is inviting the Lord and his Spirit into the spaces and places that we encounter within so that we can not only see them for ourselves but see them through the eyes of another. What we are essentially talking about here is communion. To go back to the above example, the way in which I invited the Lord's Spirit into the "shadowlands" of my spirit and soul was both through prayer and a close friendship with a spiritual director. Through prayer I imagined God or Christ beside me, both accompanying me and speaking to me of what he was experiencing as we journeyed to the "shadowlands" and as we walked beside the stream. Another way that I allowed the Lord into this region of my spirit and soul was by sharing and reflecting on the experience with a trusted friend who also is my spiritual director. She knows very well the "lay of the land" of my interior life and helped me to appreciate the implications of this experience for my life.

In the book of Genesis we are told that humans are fashioned from the earth. For me, this means that we are a reflection, symbol, or "microcosm" of the complexity and beauty of the earth itself. Our interior life, far from being a desolate, empty, and a vacuous space (unless, of course, we never "visit" it) is meant to have great depth and contour. The only way that this can be the case, however, is if we take the precious time to "map out" the geography of our heart, spirit, and soul. When we are willing to do this at least minimally, we will learn what St. Paul knew so well: that the secret to stability is interiority and communion. Pat, TOR

Friday, November 5, 2010

Heavenly Citizenship: Bringing Forth The "Essence" of the Eternal

During the month of November, the Church remembers the passing of the saints and the faithful departed and celebrates their ongoing life in the Resurrected Lord. Many churches light special candles or erect "altars of remembrance" with the names of their loved ones or pictures as a beautiful reminder that our connection and connectedness does not end in death. Having prepared for and celebrated a number of funerals myself, I am always intrigued by the fact that, for the most part, people remember and emphasize the goodness and beauty of the person who has passed. It would seem that when we experience the loss of someone we have loved, we are able to set aside their faults, failings, foibles, and get to the heart of what made them loved and lovable. It may very well be that when we remember a loved one who has died, we see them as God has always seen them and allow the "essence" of the "eternal" in their life to shine forth in all its glory.

To see the world and those in it the way God sees is essentially what Paul is getting at when he tells the Philippians in today's first reading from Mass that, "our citizenship is in heaven." Some might think that this teaching implies that Christians are to live an "other worldly" style of life and avoid commerce and interaction with those "of the world." This interpretation couldn't be further from Paul's message nor the values of the Gospel. It leads to an attitude commonly referred to as "dualism", which sees value only in religion and spirituality and dismisses the "carnal" or material aspect of reality (i.e., politics, economics, the socio-cultural realm, etc...). It's hard to reconcile such an attitude with the fact that God became in-carnated (recognize the root of "carne" or "carnal", meaning, "flesh") in Christ!

Far from implying "withdrawal", to be a "citizen of heaven" means engaging the world and all that constitutes it with a particular orientation toward the future fulfillment of God's Reign. In other words, it connotes "depth" and not "riding along the surface", simply concerned with acquiring, eating, drinking, and being merry. When a person lives in this world with one foot "forwardly grounded" in the Kingdom of God, they develop the religious and spiritual habit of seeing and drawing forth the truth, goodness, and beauty quietly and nonchalantly present in the persons, circumstances, and even things that make up their surroundings. Heavenly citizenship, far from a mode of detachment from this life, implies being an "ambassador" of God's grace to this world: bringing forth the essence of the eternal so that God may be "all in all." Pat, TOR

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Our God is a Restless God!

Chapter 15 of the Gospel of Luke is perhaps one of the most profound "scriptural windows" into the mind, heart, and Spirit of God. It consists of three parables that tell the basic story of something (or someone) being lost and than being found. The first parable tells the tale of a wandering sheep, the second is about a woman and her a coin, and the "swan song" of Chapter 15 is about a wayward, "prodigal" son.

In the Gospel from today's Mass, we hear the first two parables of chapter 15: the wandering sheep and the woman and her coin. Before examining them more closely, it's important to consider what, precisely, a parable is and how it functions as a literary genre. A parable compares two or more aspects of reality in narrative form in order to communicate a moral, ethical, or religious point. The word literally means to "lay side by side" or to compare. Because of the highly symbolic and oftentimes "colorful" nature of parables, they allow for multiple interpretations and "work" on the imagination in a powerful and expansive manner. Jesus makes use of parables extensively to help "stretch" the imagination of his hearers so that they can experience human life and God in a more dynamic, transformative manner.

When Jesus begins todays two parables with the questions, "what man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the 99 in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? and "What woman having 10 coins and losing one would not light a lamp and sweep the house, searching carefully until she finds it?", he essentially lays the groundwork for a parallel comparison between the human "reality" and God's "reality" in order to reveal something astounding about God.

It shouldn't take us too terribly long to come to the conclusion that very few, if any, shepherds would leave 99 sheep in the harsh, dangerous environs of the desert and go searching after one lost sheep. To put it bluntly, he would likely simply "cut his losses." Similarly, if a woman dropped a coin and still had 9 at her disposal, she might bend down and sweep the immediate area where she thought it landed, but if she didn't find it she likely "wouldn't sweat it" and would simply wait until the light in the house was better and search in earnest then.

When Jesus taught these two parables, I imagine he had a bit of a mischievous smirk and tone to his voice. In so many words, he's saying to his hearers "of course you would do this" when they actually wouldn't! The human response in these situations really isn't at issue. The very human, understandable, and reasonable reaction of "cutting loses" and "not sweating it" serves as a foil to reveal a surprising image of an anxious and restless God who never cuts losses and patiently "sweats it out" looking to find what is lost or has fallen. A contemporary and popular Christian song written by Kirk Franklin proclaims that, "Our God is an Awesome God." While this is no doubt true, today's Gospel also proclaims that "Our God is a Restless God" who is constantly on the search, looking to reclaim the lost and to pick up the fallen. Pat, TOR

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Jesus at His "Hyperbolic" Best: The New "Rules of the Game" of God's Kingdom

In today's Gospel for Mass, Jesus is at his "hyperbolic" best: he tells a large crowd that was following him, "if anyone comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple." As much as these words seem "jarring" to us in the 21st Century, they would have been even more "over the top" to Jesus' hearers. It's important to note that Jesus' audience were very "communitarian" and family oriented. Tight connections between family members and the larger community forged bonds that ensured survival and prosperity. Some scripture scholars debate whether Jesus actually used a word as strong as "hate". Regardless of the exact word Jesus used, it would have certainly "shook" the foundational presumptions of his audience, just as it continues to do so to this very day.

The question that this teaching begs is, "did Jesus actually mean that we should hate?" How are we to take this teaching? It is perhaps most fruitful to approach this teaching not literally (of course) but through the lens of "hyperbole". Hyperbole is a literary device that exaggerates for the sake of evoking strong emotions or to make a strong impression. What Jesus is likely trying to impress on his hearers is that the conventional "rules" of the game of life and society are being "turned upside down" by God. Jesus' teachings immediately prior to this one all challenge the "conventional way" of doing things (see Chapter 14). This teaching would seem to be the "icing" on the cake of the teachings that immediately precede it.

So, we might now pose the question, what are the "new rules of the game?" The new rules of the "game of God's Kingdom" is that the old rules of discriminating who is "in" versus who is "out" based on bloodlines, socio-economic status, class, religious observance, and any other discriminatory criteria is rendered null and void and that all are called, welcomed, and embraced at the banquet table of the Kingdom. Further, those who are vulnerable, poor, and disadvantaged are to be shown preferential treatment and given priority of place at the table (again, see Jesus' teaching immediately prior to the one in today's Gospel).

Far from being a teaching on hate, when viewed through the lens of hyperbole and the teachings that precede it, Jesus' message in today's Gospel is a teaching on how to love the way that God loves: without discrimination, without hesitation, and with the divine compassion that embraces all, especially those who are least and lowest. Pat, TOR

Monday, November 1, 2010

Solemnity of All Saints: Sharing in the Legacy of Those Who Have Gone Before Us in Faith, Hope, and Love

The readings associated with the Solemn feast day Mass of All Saints (Revelations. 7:2-4; 9-14; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12a) offers what I believe is a "roadmap" for connecting with the holy ones who have gone before us by sharing in the legacy of faith, hope, and love that they have left us. This solemn feast day is observed not only to recall the "memory" of the holy ones who have preceded us but is meant to forge a "bridge" of communion with them through our own participation in the values that they lived by.

The reading from the Book of Revelation starts the readings of the Mass off in dramatic fashion by painting an awesome picture of the multitude of God's elect that cannot be numbered and who come from all corners of the earth and every "race, nation, people, and tongue" (depicted in the above drawing by Ira Thomas). The reading continues with the innumerable elect singing a praise of victory to "God and the Lamb." The overall themes that can be extracted from the reading is that God's saving power is universal in scope and that God will ultimately be victorious over the forces of death and evil.

The second reading from the First Letter of John describes how all persons are called by divine decree to be "children of God." As profound a gift and call as this is, the author tells us that it gets even better: "beloved, we are God's children now, what we shall yet be has not been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is." To grasp the significance of this statement, permit me to bring in one of the "big guns" of contemporary Catholic theology. Karl Rahner, a famous Jesuit priest and theologian of the latter part of the 20th century, had this to say about God's saving grace: "The Giver is himself the Gift." In other words, God's grace is God's very self! Therefore, to be "God's children" is to be drawn into the same filial embrace shared by God and Christ in the Holy Spirit.

Finally, the Gospel reading from Matthew lays out for us the teaching of the beatitudes. The beatitudes describe the kind of dispositions that are necessary and non-negotiable for humbly and graciously receiving the "Giver who is himself the Gift": poverty of spirit, empathy, meekness, righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking, and willingness to endure persecution for the sake of God's reign.

The "roadmap" that these readings lay out for us in connecting with the legacy of the multitude of the Holy One's who have gone before us and who continue interceding for us is the faith to actively engage the forces of death and sin (believing that they will be ultimately overcome); the hope that God's saving outreach applies to all and that we are children of God (destined to share in the self-same glory of the Son); and the love to graciously and humbly receive and share God's grace (embracing the "Giver who is himself the Gift.") Pat, TOR

The Ordinary Stuff of Saints

The opening lines of this hymn help to provide a focus for the feast we celebrate today. “For all your saints still striving; for all your saints at rest” this is what we are remembering today. The gigantic catalogue of Saints, Blesseds and Servants of God staggers any one individual’s memory. Furthermore, this list is just the beginning for the Church’s memory.
All Saints Day is about all those who choose to make the Gospel of Christ a living thing. When Saint Theresa of Avila remarked, “Some say that the saints are dead. I say that they are more alive than we are.” And Saint Ireneus’, “The glory of God is humanity fully alive.”, alert us to a choice that we can make every day.
This choice is not usually something that makes for headlines or consists of grand heroic acts. Most often , it tends to be known only to the person who makes it. To the casual observer, it looks ordinary and simply taken for granted. Yet, for the individual making it, there can be great heroism.
Take for instance the single mom who works an eight-hour day, perhaps as a sales clerk. As she stands behind her cash register, greeting each customer with respect, regardless of his or her mood at the time. Behind the scenes, she is concerned with the well-being of her young family, wondering if she’ll make it through another month of bills and childhood crises. The fact that she manages to do the “ordinary” is expected and not considered miraculous –the stuff of sainthood. Yet, in light of the Church’s memory of what makes for a saint, she is “on the list”!
What makes for a saint? Perhaps what Matt Talbot wrote in his journal would help broaden our appreciation for this feast day. Talbot spent his youth, from about the age of 12 until his mid twenties in an alcoholic stupor. One day, having nothing to drink and no friends around to buy him his liquor, he decided to “make the pledge” to remain sober for three months. One day at a time, he not only stayed sober, but began living “fully alive”. Sustained by daily prayer and the sacraments, his ordinary life was a series of daily choices, marked by his reliance upon God’s grace. His note to himself read: “Three things I cannot escape: the eye of God, the voice of conscience, the stroke of death.” Here we read the foundation for living in the moment; in touch with life as it is. Further on he writes down the “How” he does it. “In company I guard my tongue. In my family I guard my temper. When alone, I guard my thoughts.” Here’s the stuff of saints!
Happy feast! It’s YOUR day!