Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Healing River and Refining Fire of Faith

The first reading from Monday's (2 Kings 5:1-15) and Tuesday's (Daniel 3:25, 34-43) Daily Mass are quite intriguing stories from the Old Testament, laden with very stark and interesting imagery. The story from Second Kings is about the healing of the Aramean army commander Naaman by the prophet Elisha. Naaman travels all the way from Aram to Israel and is told in quite matter-of-fact fashion, that, if he wants to be healed of his leprosy, he need only bathe in the Jordan River. Naaman is quite put off by this simplistic proposal and says to his servants, “I thought that he would surely come out and stand there 
to invoke the LORD his God,
 and would move his hand over the spot,
 and thus cure the leprosy.
 Are not the rivers of Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar,
 better than all the waters of Israel? 
Could I not wash in them and be cleansed?” Just as Naaman is about to return to Aram in anger, his servants prevail on him to at least give the prophet's instruction a try (since he is already so close to the Jordan). Naaman indeed does go to the Jordan, plunges himself into the River seven times and is healed! In today's first reading from the book of the prophet Daniel, we encounter the Israelite exile, Azariah, standing in the "white hot" fiery furnace of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar (he was tossed into the furnace for refusing to worship an idol crafted by the King's artisans). Instead of being burned to bits, Azariah sings a great hymn of faith to the God of Israel, and is miraculously protected against the flames lapping up all around him!

These two stories reminded me of a line from the movie "The Shawshank Redemption." This movie tells the story of a prison escape by the central character, Andy Dufresne, who was unjustly imprisoned at Shawshank Prison for a murder he didn't commit. In order to be freed from the prison, Andy had to crawl through a mile long septic tunnel nearly filled with human refuse. His friend, a fellow inmate named Red, summed it up best by stating that Andy, "crawled through a river of sh*t and came out clean on the other side." The above mentioned readings from Second Kings and Daniel, along with this profound and loaded statement by Red, point to difficult truths that we very often don't want to face: in order to "come out clean" (i.e., be healed and made relatively "whole") or arrive at a strong, fire-tested faith, we almost certainly have to "bathe" in less than desirable "waters", "go through the fire", or, even crawl through a "river of sh*t". In other words, there is no magical formula or way in which we can come to meaning, purpose, and even a sense of the beauty of our lives apart from the murky, muddy, stinky, and fiery experiences that make up life and the story of our lives. It's only by directly facing, embracing, and enduring the sum total of all that makes up life and our lives in a spirit of hope and reverence that even the most putrid waters can somehow miraculously heal and the most blazing fire can refine our trust in the God who accompanies us through it all. Pat, TOR

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The "Repentance Ripple Effect"

Wash yourselves clean! 
Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; 
cease doing evil; learn to do good.
 Make justice your aim: redress the wronged,
 hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow. Come now, let us set things right, 
says the LORD: 
Though your sins be like scarlet, 
they may become white as snow;
 though they be crimson red,
 they may become white as wool (Isaiah 1:16-18).

These words from the prophet Isaiah are from a classic "Lenten time" text that is meant to highlight the loving largesse of God in continually calling the Israelite community to repentance and renewed fidelity to the covenant. What makes this text so vitally important and relevant for Christians of the 21st Century is that it points to the communal dimensions of penance and how focusing on this can create a "ripple effect" that than results in healing and forgiveness at a personal level.

For the past hundred years or so, Lent and the penance inherent in it has been approached largely as a personal or individual affair. Lent was a time for getting one's own house/relationship with God in order so as to be prepared to celebrate Easter. The practices associated with Lent include prayer, fasting, works of mercy, and confessing one's sins to a priest. While these practices are good in and of themselves, when they are not in any way, shape, or form connected to the larger community and world, they risk becoming purely individualistic practices that don't really result in a change on this larger scale. What Isaiah, and many prophets for that matter, indicate through their writings is a quite opposite process. They teach that by reaching out to the larger community as an arm of advocacy and voice for justice, one's personal house will quite naturally be put in order and one's "sins" will become "white as snow." The point for Christians living in a very individualistic culture is that regardless of whether we begin with "our house" or the "larger house" of the community and world, our repentance should create a "ripple effect" that impacts both our lives AND the world for the better. Pat, TOR

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Jesus' Transfiguration: Hope for When Life Gives Us "Too Much."

Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, 
and led them up a high mountain by themselves.
 And he was transfigured before them; 
his face shone like the sun 
and his clothes became white as light (Matthew. 17:1-9).

I recently spoke to a man going through a very difficult, trying, and even tragic set of life circumstances, most of which he was enduring to no fault of his own. He shared that, when he approached other Christians looking for support, he was told by one or more, "the Lord doesn't give you more than what you can handle." Do you ever wonder where they grow people like this? It's bad enough that this man is in deep pain without having to have a fellow Christian do them the favor of suggesting God has ordained that they go through this or is even responsible for it! Such a naive, dismissive "pious platitude" overlooks the obvious fact that life and God ARE NOT one and the same (a "pious platitude" is a stock phrase that is often the equivalent of saying "I don't want to hear about it" but is used instead as a pious gloss to make the person saying it appear to be reverent when in fact they're not!). Granted, GOD may not give us more than we can handle, but MANY people can attest to the fact that LIFE at times sure as heck does!

Jesus' Transfiguration in today's Gospel gives us some insight into a reason to hope when life gives us too much. Prior to this extraordinary event in Jesus' life, he has come into the awareness that the storm clouds are gathering in the distant horizon and that he is likely going to meet with a very cruel and tragic fate. In a word, life, and NOT GOD is about to give him more than he can handle (anyone who thinks that crucifixion isn't more than a person can handle, raise your hand! Ok, now, for those raising your hand, go to the end of Matthew's Gospel, 27:46, when Jesus shouts the guttural cry from the cross, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?". Sounds like someone who is a little overwhelmed, no?). However, what does God do for Jesus on the Mountain in today's Gospel? He doesn't promise to "transform" Jesus' destiny, but to "transfigure" it. There is an incredibly important nuance between one and the other.

To transform something is to change it completely and essentially. To transfigure has more the slight, nuanced connotation of changing the appearance or, in this case, the meaning of something. What may very well be going on in the transfiguration event is a symbol and sign of the hope that, while life is certainly about to dish out more than Jesus can handle in crucifixion, God will, in fact, make these circumstances the very thing that constitutes eternal life. In other words, Jesus' crucifixion as a total gift of self and love to the point of death will not end in wholesale abandonment by God but will become the very path to eternal life. Why is this a sign or symbol of hope for us? What it means is that there is nothing that we can experience in our lives, no matter how painful or tragic, that is beyond the Lord's capacity to use as a means through which our own lives are transfigured in God's love. Pat, TOR

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The "Universal" Call To Repentance and Transformation

When we think about Lent as a season of deepened reflection on our lives and the penance that we practice to align our lives more along the lines of Jesus' legacy of love and self-sacrifice, we usually frame the season and "penitential practices" (fasting, almsgiving, abstinence) in very personal terms. In doing so, we may inadvertently forget that the Gospel call to repentance and transformation applies to every nook and cranny of existence, to every area of our world, personal, interpersonal, cultural, social, political, and, even societal.

Wednesday's first reading from Mass serves as a reminder that we are called to work for the transformation of all areas of our society and world. The reading tells the story of Jonah, a jewish prophet sent to the pagan town of Ninevah to proclaim that impending doom will be upon them unless they essentially change their lives on a dime (Jonah 3:1-10). And, you know what, THEY DO! From the King all the way down to the normal, every day citizen, they proclaim a fast and respond favorably to Jonah's message! This reading serves as an illustration that God's call to repentance and transformation is "universal" in that it applies to all areas of existence. Furthermore, when change and transformation occur at the level of society, it creates an environment that makes it much easier to makes changes at the personal and interpersonal level. In the age of the internet, when we can come into contact with so many organizations striving to change our society, it takes very little to join one or more, and, like Jonah, call our society to the repentance and transformation that is needed in order to make more space for the Kingdom of God. Pat, TOR

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Daily Mass Reflection: The "Long View" of God's Word Accomplishing All that God Wills

Thus says the LORD: 
Just as from the heavens 
the rain and snow come down
 and do not return there
 till they have watered the earth,
 making it fertile and fruitful,
 giving seed to the one who sows
 and bread to the one who eats,
 so shall my word be
 that goes forth from my mouth; 
it shall not return to me void, 
but shall do my will,
 achieving the end for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:10-11).

This beautiful verse from the prophet Isaiah is a tribute to the potent Word of God, spoken from the beginning of time and through which all things came into being (John 1:1-3). As wondrous as this passage is, how do we understand and appreciate its truthfulness given the fact that the Word of God has been spoken in many and varied ways, and, above all in Jesus, and yet there is still so much evil and sin that prevails? How can we "discern" the possibility that this word will, in fact, achieve the end for which God sent it? My suggestion is that we take a "long view" approach to this dilemma.

By "long view" I mean looking back and forward in time, speculatively piercing through the mists of what we know about the beginning of all things and also what we believe will be the destiny of all things. The long view, in short, means imagining the role of the Word as the means or motor through which all things came into being and by which all things will come into their final, Resurrected fullness. When we look back in time to the beginning of all things through the lens of faith, we see a God who creates through what Irenaeus, an early Church Father, referred to as "the two hands of the Father", the Word and the Holy Spirit. This doesn't mean that the Word and Spirit "physically" fashioned and formed each creature (this occurred through evolutionary unfolding over billions of years), rather, the Word and Spirit can be discerned through the lens of faith as inherent in the "relational dynamism" that draws, attracts, and bonds creatures at an "elemental" level and a relational level. Hence, insofar as this pattern of drawing, attracting, and bonding continues, the Word can, in fact, be said to "achieve the end for which God sent it."

More important to appreciating how the Word will accomplish all that God wills, however, is the speculative "long view" with regard to all things "being gathered up" in Christ (Ephesians, 1:10). Yesterday I gave a talk on "caring for creation" to a group of young adults and spoke about how, in order to make the Christian faith compelling, we need to RADICALLY re-envision our expectations about the after life. For many centuries, the prevailing notion of heaven is that it would consist of the saints and angels gathered before God's throne, singing God's praises for eternity. This doesn't do justice to God's total plan for creation in Christ, and, furthermore, is a relatively boring conception of heaven! The metaphor that captures a more accurate depiction of the after life is a "New Heavens and New Earth." This metaphor is found in Isaiah 65:17, 2 Peter 3:13, and Revelation 21:1 and refers to God's plan to "conserve" and utterly transform our present world into a "resurrected" one in which Heaven and Earth come together in perfect communion and form the "place" where we will dwell in eternity. It is through the Word, Spirit, and the Resurrected Son that God will gather up all things and give them final, glorified, and everlasting permanence. Quite an exciting prospect if you ask me! Through the "long view" of what God is doing in God's Word and in Christ, we can come to appreciate the truth of Isaiah's notion that God's Word is accomplishing, and will accomplish, all that God has willed. Pat, TOR

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Fasting in Lent a Hungering for Justice

"Thus says the Lord GOD: 
cry out full-throated and unsparingly, 
lift up your voice like a trumpet blast; 
Tell my people their wickedness, 
and the house of Jacob their sins. 
They seek me day after day,
 and desire to know my ways, 
like a nation that has done what is just
 and not abandoned the law of their God;
 They ask me to declare what is due them, 
pleased to gain access to God.
“Why do we fast, and you do not see it? 
Afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it?” Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits, 
and drive all your laborers.
 Yes, your fast ends in quarreling and fighting,
 striking with wicked claw.
 Would that today you might fast
 so as to make your voice heard on high!
 Is this the manner of fasting I wish, 
of keeping a day of penance:
 that a man bow his head like a reed
 and lie in sackcloth and ashes?
 Do you call this a fast,
 a day acceptable to the LORD?
 This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: 
releasing those bound unjustly, 
untying the thongs of the yoke;
 setting free the oppressed,
 breaking every yoke;
 sharing your bread with the hungry, 
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
 clothing the naked when you see them,
 and not turning your back on your own.
 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
 and your wound shall quickly be healed;
 your vindication shall go before you, 
and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer, 
you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am! (Isaiah, 58:10-9a).

These words from the prophet Isaiah, an indictment of the Israelite community of his day (especially the rich and powerful) offer in a very summary, condensed, and concise formula the reason and rationale for fasting and repentance. The Church put forward this reading for consideration on the Friday after Ash Wednesday in order to help remind us what the Lenten season means in terms of a time of penance, fasting, and sacrifice. In general, the Lenten season is a 40 day period of reflecting on and remembering the Passion of the Lord: his devotion to humanity as the "Son of Man" (or, servant to all), his teachings, his legacy of love for the outcast, marginated, poor, and afflicted, his determination to be God's fullest expression of love and mercy despite the rejection and malice of those who opposed him, and his resolve to love until the end by carrying the cross, being wholly rejected by his own, and being hanged from a tree. Our fasting, repentance, and sacrifices are meant to unite us more and more to the above legacy of Jesus, referred to as the "Paschal Mystery."

Over the past several days, I have been receiving email alerts from Catholic or Christian advocacy groups who are calling on people to decry some of the cuts that Congress is proposing to balance the budget. One of these groups, called "Sowers of Justice" (the advocacy arm of the Office for Social Justice for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis), listed some of the cuts as follows: $100 million from Emergency Food and Shelter Program, $2.3 billion from job training programs, $1.08 billion from Head Start, $875 million from International Disaster Assistance, $800 million from International Food Aid, $2.5 billion from affordable housing, $1 billion from Community Health Centers, $904 million from migrants and refugees. When I received this email, I didn't respond immediately. I admit that in my busyness I let the email sit in my inbox for a couple days. But, after reading the above passage from Isaiah, I made an immediate connection to what it means to do penance, to fast, and to sacrifice in light of the attempts to balance the US budget in part on the backs of the some of the poorest in our world and on the backs of those struggling in this country. It means repenting and fasting from my indifference, and expressing my outrage and even anger at the injustice of cutting these programs while the defense budget, for the most part, will get a "free pass" and endure only minimal cuts relative to so many other areas. There's no easy way around it, according to Isaiah: For our fasting, sacrifice, and penance to be meaningful to God and to unite us to Jesus' legacy, it must lead us to act and cry out in the face of the grave injustices currently causing so much suffering in our world. Pat, TOR

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Choosing the "Filters" that Help Us To See and Choose Life

In today's first reading from Mass, Moses reminds the Israelites about the promises and obligations of the covenant and tells them, "I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live" (Deuteronomy 30:19). This seems straightforward enough, right? However, were that it was so easy! If it was so easy to simply "choose life", much ink wouldn't have been spilled writing the rest of the Old Testament, which tells one story after another about how the Israelites failed to keep the covenant! What accounts for such categorical failure for humanity to consistently "choose the good", even when we know it is in our best interests? While there are no doubt many and varied reasons for this, one in particular may have to do with recent theories in the field of psychology.

Psychology has demonstrated that much of what we choose in life has to do not simply with moral or ethical uprightness but is attributable to the conscious or unconscious "filters" that we perceive life and the world through. Throughout our history, messages or beliefs about life and the world are stamped into our awareness through parents, peers, friends, experience, religion, the media, and culture (among others). These messages or beliefs form lenses or "filters" through which we than subsequently interpret our world and life. Some of these lenses or filters are "good", functional, or helpful; others may be indifferent; still others may lead us to the suspicion that the world and life are not to be trusted nor lived in a spirit of openness, honesty, integrity, and vulnerability. It makes perfect sense to suggest that we make choices for "the good or the bad" based largely on our underlying and secret (meaning, unconscious) filters or beliefs about ourselves, others, God, life, and the world that surrounds us. If our filters are a bit "off" and we wish to "retool" or altogether replace them, we might attempt to explore our unconscious in the hopes of identifying the problematic beliefs that we have so that we can than choose healthier options. However, there is another way that we can begin changing our filters.

By reading, reflecting on, mulling over, and pondering at length the great stories of scripture, we can begin appropriating and integrating symbols and metaphors that will, over time, become filters that help us to choose "the good." Many of the stories in scripture are universal in the sense that they capture experiences common to nearly every person who has ever lived. Motifs, symbols, or metaphors such as "Garden of Eden," "Exile," the "journey to the promised land" resonate with nearly every person and can therefore be integrated into a person's life as filters that help one not only derive meaning, but also make choices that lead to life. For the Christian, the "filter" par excellence is the Cross of Christ. In today's Gospel Jesus tells his disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself 
and take up his cross daily and follow me. 
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
 but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.
 What profit is there for one to gain the whole world
 yet lose or forfeit himself?” (Luke 9:23-25). This is quite a tall order! In order to choose the "good" of carrying the Cross and voluntarily loosing one's self (which is quite contrary to prevailing cultural notions about what constitutes the good life), one must simply become so familiar with the Master's life that his teachings, stories, parables, and very life becomes one's own. For, before we can choose the good, we must be able to recognize or see it. In order to do this, we very often have to change one set of filters for another. Pat, TOR

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Many Shades of Ashen Grey on This, The Holiest of Wednesday's

Today as I was vesting for the morning celebration of Ash Wednesday, I overheard a conversation about a parishioner's daughter who was struck by a sudden illness while attending school at Florida State University. Without knowing the specifics of the condition, apparently blood has to be drained from her right arm, plasma has to be added to it, and than it will be sent back into this appendage. From the sounds of it, this must be a somewhat serious condition. As we gathered at the baptismal font, I saw the parishioner in question, Adam, talking with our pastor, Fr. Robert. Fr. Robert was expressing his concern. I immediately went over to express my own. From what Adam shared with us, his daughters immune system had been compromised due to carrying a heavy load of stress, making her susceptible to this relatively serious ailment. The concern in his face was marked. I knew this because I've seen Adam on a number of occasions and know him to be very even-keeled, not expressing too much emotion. There was little doubt in my mind as he reached out to take my hand and shake it that this was a Father who was very worried for his little girl.

As I began the celebration and looked out at where Adam was seated, I wondered, "what does Ash Wednesday mean for Adam?" What does the call to, "repent, and believe the Good News" imply for him and his situation? By extension, what does it imply for all of the persons who packed the Church this day (which was quite surprising, I might add). The universal "shade of grey" that we associate with Ash Wednesday is turning away from personal sins such as the standard litany of, lust, greed, impatience, avarice, sloth, hatred, or sins agains one or more of the Ten Commandments. Yet, what I realized by looking out at Adam, and considering what this day means for him, is that Ash Wednesday, reflected in the ashen look of worry and concern on his face, is about repenting of something far more primordial or deep. It occurred to me that before we take stock of our personal sins and repent of them, perhaps we must "repent", or turn away, insofar as we are able, from the age-old temptation to despair of life as little more than a random occurrence of either fortunate or unfortunate events that eventually comes to little or nothing at best, or, that ends in utter oblivion at worst. As I looked at Adam and the many persons who packed our Church today, I believe that they were here not just to repent of personal sins, but to cling to hope in the midst of so much difficulty, challenge, trial, heartache, pain, and tension swirling in our world right now. I imagine the current state of the economy, job market, and all the confusion about how to fix things are some of the main motivators for observing Ash Wednesday.

In Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians (today's second reading from Mass), Paul tells us that Jesus was "made sin for us" so that we might become the "righteousness of God" in him (2 Cor. 5:21). What is so important about this statement with regard to holding on to hope in the midst of seemingly impenetrable darkness, is that Jesus became sin so as to assure us that there is absolutely no experience under the sun that can definitively cut us off from God's presence. There is nothing we can do to cause God to withdraw God's forgiving, supportive, and healing hand. Furthermore, there is nothing that life can do to separate us or our loved one's from God's all-encompassing embrace or relentless chase of us. Through Adam's experience, and what I imagine to be the experience of so many others who packed St. Patrick's Church today, I'm coming to believe that there are "many shades of ashen grey" that make Ash Wednesday a solemn day of the recognition that we are called to a radical renewal of hope, despite all the varied reasons that may very well threaten it. Pat, TOR

Monday, March 7, 2011

Oh, to Have a Heart Like Tobit!

Today's first reading for Daily Mass comes from the Old Testament Book of Tobit (1:3;2:1-8). The excerpt tells the story of how Tobit, a faithful, law-abiding Jew exiled in Assyria with his fellow Jews from the Northern Kingdom, responds instantaneously to news that one of his fellow kinsman was found slain in the local marketplace. The story goes that Tobit had just sat down to a sumptuous feast and had sent his son out to look for a fellow Jew with whom to share the meal. The son comes back and tells Tobit the disturbing news about the murder. Tobit responds by springing to his feet, leaving his dinner untouched, and carrying the dead body back to his own home to be buried later, after sunset. The story continues by stating how Tobit wept while eating and buried the man after sunset, much to the chagrin of his neighbors. It turns out that Tobit had done this same thing before, putting him at cross purposes with the Assyrian powers that be, and was nearly executed! His neighbors mock him saying, “He is still not afraid!
 Once before he was hunted down for execution 
because of this very thing; 
yet now that he has scarcely escaped, 
here he is again burying the dead!”

Oh, to have a heart like Tobit! First he shows charity by sending his son out to look for a neighbor to share his meal with. Than he immediately foregoes his meal to retrieve the murdered body of a fellow Jew. Finally, if that were not enough, he buries his kinsman, risking life and limb in the process! This story and the character of Tobit exemplify what true religion is about: so thoroughly imbibing and integrating the laws and customs in letter and spirit that one can than be open and responsive to the moral challenges inherent in life. This is really the purpose of religion and spirituality, isn't it? To condition our minds and hearts, through story, symbol, and sacrament, to be radically opened to the sum total of what constitutes human and humane life so that we can embrace and live it as fully as possible. Part of what constitutes life, as was the case in this story about Tobit, are situations that are heavy with moral and ethical implications. Depending on how we respond to them, we become more opened and attuned to what life should and could be about or less. Religion and spirituality really is precisely about this: attuning our bodies, minds, hearts, spirits, and souls to respond to life with a heart like Tobit. Pat, TOR

Sunday, March 6, 2011

True Freedom: Freedom in Faith

The readings from the 9th Sunday in Ordinary Time are an "exercise in contrasts" that serve as an opportunity to explore an important and relevant theme of life (especially for American Christians): the notion of freedom. The second reading from Paul's Letter to the Romans highlights the fact that God's gift of salvation in Christ is totally free, is extended to us apart from our worthiness, and is dependent only on faith (Romans, 3:21-25, 28). In the Gospel (7:21-27), Jesus teaches that not everyone who says, "Lord, Lord" nor even those who do mighty deeds in the Lord's name will necessarily enter the Kingdom. Only those who do the will of the Father (i.e., those who live by faith). The exercise in contrasts consists of Paul telling us that God's gift of salvation is unconditioned by what we do and Jesus instructing his hearers that one must do the will of the Father in order to be citizens of the Kingdom. The bridge between the two is the concept of faith and, furthermore, practically living out one's freedom in faith.

Faith is not something that is lived out in a cultural vacuum. It takes root, and is either stymied or nurtured, precisely in part by the cultural values that swirl around us. One of the predominant US cultural values that can nurture or stymie faith is the value of freedom. We hear this word constantly in our culture, in media, advertising, social and political forums, in day-to-day conversations, it is a word that is extremely diffuse in our society. Yet, we may be unaware of how the cultural approach to freedom conditions our faith and either harms it or emboldens it. While there are many particular expressions of freedom, three come immediately to mind that can stymie or nurture one's ability to live the Christian faith fully in true freedom. The first is freedom of choice. This value can stymie faith when it is taken to mean that all choices are equal. We obviously know, for example, in surfing the internet, that not every site builds up our faith in the beauty of life and the goodness of humanity - some sites are downright dehumanizing! This value, however, builds up faith when we make discerning choices in light of the Gospel, understanding that they directly impact who we are and who we become.

A second value is self-assertion. It becomes an obstacle to faith when one asserts one's self over and against others. Think about last week's Supreme Court ruling securing a certain Christian sect's right to protest at service member's funerals (not protesting war, but protesting against what they believe are the moral ailments of our culture). Their so called exercise of "freedom", has actually enslaved them to hatred, bias, prejudice, and imposing themselves in a way that is quite emotionally damaging to the families of the dead service members. The freedom of self-assertion nurtures faith when it emboldens the dignity of a person or a group of persons and moves them to work for change in our society (think of Women's Suffrage or the Civil Rights Movement). Finally, there is the freedom of self-entitlement. It is detrimental to faith when it results in persons believing they have an absolute right to their time or wealth as if they were the complete masters of their own fate. Do you think that an over-aggrandized sense of self-entitlement might have had something to do with our current economic crisis? In it's healthy expression, this value nurture's faith when a person has the understanding that self-entitlement applies to all persons: everyone should have equal access to what is needed to live a fully human life.

Whether or not we are people of faith largely depends on what we do with our freedom. A case in point of a person who illustrates how true freedom is freedom lived in faith is Dr. Paul Farmer. Farmer graduated from Duke University and than went on to earn an MD and PhD in cultural anthropology from Harvard. Talk about someone who had had the world in the palm of his hand and could have chosen whatever he wanted for a career and lifestyle, asserted himself for his own gain, or given in to a sense of self-entitlement! Nevertheless, Farmer chose a life of freedom of faith by going to Haiti, Rwanda, and depressed areas in Russia to put his gifts wholly at the service of the poor. He also founded Partners in Health, a global healthcare initiative that not only seeks to serve the poor, but to change the conditions that keep them from having access to adequate healthcare. To experience the power of Christ's salvation in our lives, and to experience true freedom, doesn't imply doing exactly what Dr. Paul Farmer did (few of us have the gifts he does). Rather, it simply means opening our lives, and our sense of freedom, to a much larger, needier reality and responding with the gifts that we do have by exercising our freedom so that others bereft of the freedoms we take for granted might experience the saving love, light, and life of God. Pat, TOR

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Wisdom Tradition: Mining for a Life Richly and Deeply Infused with Heart, Spirit, and Soul

Today's first reading from Daily Mass comes from the book of Sirach (a book of "wisdom") and is essentially a profound meditation on the mystery of God and of existence. No doubt the wisdom figure and writer was the beneficiary of a long tradition of "wisdom" sayings that formed his own perceptions about God and creation. What the wisdom tradition and the books of wisdom in the Old Testament remind us is that God, human existence, and existence itself is something that is meant to be mulled over, reflected upon, contemplated, and experienced at great depth.

Bernard Lonergan, a theologian of the last century, said that "God is the inexhaustibly comprehensible." What this implies is that God can, in fact, be grasped to a degree by the human mind, heart, spirit, and soul - though not completely. What this also means is that human existence and life itself is intended to be pondered, contemplated, mulled over, reflected upon, and subsequently lived at greater and richer depth. So, what keeps us from "diving" to the depths and mining the richness of God, our lives, relationships, and world?

To begin with, much of our media, advertising, and society choose to simply "ride along the surface" of life. Very often popular culture focuses on the basest human drives and instincts and manipulates these to create insecurity, inferiority, and a sense of need where none should rightfully exist. It's a bit of a conspiracy, if you will, that we all go along with to some degree in order to prop up a culture focused largely on materialism and consumerism. To "go deep" in such a culture is to risk being liberated from such "programming" and to live according to values that might very well radically question much of what our society currently stands for. Therefore, deliberate, deep, purposeful living obviously is not very much encouraged!

Another reason why we don't readily and reflectively dive to the depths of contemplating God, human existence, and life itself is simply because of fear and trepidation. What do you think of when you hear the word "depths"? Probably NOT a sunny, warm, wide open meadow full of daises and butterflies! Rather, what is conjured up are words such as "darkness", "obscurity", "uncertainty", "fear", and perhaps the image of an unyielding, uncontrollable abyss. Nevertheless, the "pearl of great price" of a life truly worth living is to be found not in the contrived, "sunny meadows" nor the "slick and smooth" ride along the surface of life but in the difficult and laborious plumbing of the abyss of God's heart, our hearts, the heart of our relationships, and the heart of life itself. The question posed to us by the wisdom tradition is essentially, do we settle for the surface reality that life presents, or do we "dive" into the abyss, "mining" for a life richly and deeply infused with heart, spirit, and soul. Pat, TOR

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

God's New Way of Speaking and Working in the World

"Come to our aid, O' God of the Universe....Give new signs, and work new wonders." (Sirach 36:1, 5)

These words from The Book of Sirach (an ancient book of Hebrew wisdom literature) call on the God of the Universe to manifest his presence through signs and wonders to a people who are likely between a rock and a hard place. They echo the primordial, incessant need of the human person to know of God's abiding and supportive presence in the midst of the trial, tribulation, and challenges inherent in life. Yet to call on God to "give new signs" and "work new wonders" means attuning one's mind, heart, spirit, and soul to be able to perceive such signs and wonders.

At times it may seem that God no longer speaks as God did in the Bible nor gives signs nor works wonders. Why is it that God worked so impressively in many parts of the Old Testament and in the ministry of Jesus but now is seemingly silent? What has changed in God's communication that requires a corresponding adaptation in the way that we attune our minds and hearts in order to hear what God is saying and in order to "see" the "new signs" and "new wonders" that God is bringing about?

If God can be described as a "person" and, even more, as a "communion of persons" (Father, Son, and Spirit), than this seems to imply the necessity of change when it comes to the way that God relates to us. Karl Rahner, the famous Jesuit theologian from the last century, used to say that, "the giver is himself the gift." What this means is that God doesn't communicate something "about" himself, but has always communicated his "very" self and nothing less. Such a mode of communication requires adaptation on the part of the one communicating (God) and the one receiving the communication (humanity). In other words, God has always spoken words that can be understood by humanity and humanity has progressively become more attuned to God's "speech." Over the course of time, God has spoken more deeply about God's self to humanity. This speech reached it's fullness in the person of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. In the Christ event God perfectly melded the "speaker" and the "hearer" of God's word. Rahner also had a saying that, "humans are the event of God's self-communication." What this means is that humanity was always intended to not only receive God's fullest communication, but to become that very communication in Christ (or, to become as God) and Holy Spirit. Through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us, we are called, in a very real and dynamic sense, to speak God's words, to give new signs, and to work new wonders. Far from being silent, God now speaks in, through, and with us when we aspire to live as Christ and allow the Spirit to take firm hold of our minds, hearts, spirits, souls, relationships, communities, and even, the entire world. Pat, TOR