Wednesday, July 31, 2013

People of the Yes and No

Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
Matthew 5: 33-37
Reflection – (I am away at the Nazareth family camp this week, but left the blog on automatic post-pilot. Comments are moderated, as I am not around to check them.)

We’re going through the Sermon on the Mount, bit by bit, to bask in the light of faith it sheds on our lives in this Year of Faith, and to illuminate any dark corners of our being that may not quite be in that faith just yet.

This little passage is a somewhat obscure light, it seems to me. Most of us are not raised in a culture where oath-taking is a major component of civil life. Signed contracts are the fundamental unit of binding social obligation in our modern world, not sworn oaths.

In the ancient world, it was not thus. And oaths sworn on this sacred thing or that were the norm of social congress and cohesion in that world. So what is Jesus meaning, by saying it is from the evil one?

I don’t claim to have the final word on this or any other Gospel passage, but it seems to me that so much of Jesus’ teachings are about integrity of heart, about the interiority of the human person, about being truly righteous inside and out. Oaths needed to be sworn by sacred objects and entities because the human person, taken in and as a person, was insufficiently trustworthy.

In other words, you and I are not sacred objects or entities, and need these extra boost of oath-taking to be trusted. And this is what Jesus is pushing us to surmount. If I am a child of the kingdom, then my simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ should be sufficient. The Lord is calling us to enter more deeply into our divine dignity, our status as sons and daughters of God in Him.

We live, meanwhile, in a world of deceit, spin, subterfuge, manipulation, and (to put it bluntly) b.s. The taking of sacred oaths has largely passed away from our social contract, but the call to deep integrity, deep honesty, and deep trustworthiness is no less urgent and relevant in our world. To say what we mean and mean what we say, to be simple men and women of the ‘yes and the no’, to eschew all forms of spin doctoring and manipulation and propaganda—this is serious Gospel business in our world today.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Pope's Real Job

Christ, on the eve of his passion, assured Peter: "I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail" (Lk 22:32). He then told him to strengthen his brothers and sisters in that same faith. Conscious of the duty entrusted to the Successor of Peter, Benedict XVI proclaimed the present Year of Faith, a time of grace which is helping us to sense the great joy of believing and to renew our wonder at the vast horizons which faith opens up, so as then to profess that faith in its unity and integrity, faithful to the memory of the Lord and sustained by his presence and by the working of the Holy Spirit.

The conviction born of a faith which brings grandeur and fulfillment to life, a faith centered on Christ and on the power of his grace, inspired the mission of the first Christians. In the acts of the martyrs, we read the following dialogue between the Roman prefect Rusticus and a Christian named Hierax: "‘Where are your parents?’, the judge asked the martyr. He replied: ‘Our true father is Christ, and our mother is faith in him’". For those early Christians, faith, as an encounter with the living God revealed in Christ, was indeed a "mother", for it had brought them to the light and given birth within them to divine life, a new experience and a luminous vision of existence for which they were prepared to bear public witness to the end.

The Year of Faith was inaugurated on the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. This is itself a clear indication that Vatican II was a Council on faith, inasmuch as it asked us to restore the primacy of God in Christ to the center of our lives, both as a Church and as individuals. The Church never takes faith for granted, but knows that this gift of God needs to be nourished and reinforced so that it can continue to guide her pilgrim way. The Second Vatican Council enabled the light of faith to illumine our human experience from within, accompanying the men and women of our time on their journey. It clearly showed how faith enriches life in all its dimensions.
Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, 6-7

Reflection - (I am away at the Nazareth family camp this week, but left the blog on automatic post-pilot. Comments are moderated, as I am not around to check them.)

I am very aware, writing this, that many eyes and ears are turned towards Rio de Janeiro this week, while I am hearing confessions on the shore of Lake Mascinonge and saying Mass in the camp chapel there. I will enjoy going through at least some of Pope Francis’ words to the world’s youth upon my return next week or so.

Meanwhile, we have here in what seems to be a relatively business-like section of the encyclical a great description of the ministry of the papacy, from the Lord Himself: to strengthen the faith of the brethren, so that it may not fail. This is really what the bishop of Rome is called to do, and what so many of them have, in fact, done. Never perfectly, never without struggle, and certainly always falling short more or less, as we all fall short, more or less.

But nonetheless, this is what the papacy is for. To stir up faith, to clarify and safeguard the content of faith, and to stabilize and facilitate the structures and mechanisms for the transmission of faith—the whole mission of the Church, right? And it is beautiful to hear the vision of the Holy Father as to what this is about: joy and wonder, beauty and vast horizons, fidelity, integrity, and unity. We so often think of the Church—many do, anyhow—as this constricting, choking thing. Rules, RULES, RULES! (Who needs them?) But this is not the Church’s self-understanding. The Church is, believes herself to be, a force of liberation and expansion of life and love in the world. And I believe this is true, and I hold that the lives of the saints are the great vindication of this truth in church history.

I am also struck by the presentation of Vatican II in this section, that it shows the primacy of God and Christ illuminating human life from within. In other words, human experience, reflected upon, yields openness to the truth of the Gospel we proclaim. This is not the normal popular understanding of Vatican II, is it? Wasn’t it about making the Church a democracy, or letting everyone decide the moral law for themselves, or introducing guitars at Mass or something?

So there we have it: the Pope’s job is to stir up faith, the Church’s job is to make our lives beautiful and free and rich in that faith, and Vatican II shows how human experience reflected on opens us up to these faith-filled realities. To be continued… next Tuesday.

Monday, July 29, 2013

More Than a Little Relevant

It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Matthew 5: 31-32

Reflection – (I am away at the Nazareth family camp this week, but left the blog on automatic post-pilot.)

It strikes me as perhaps significant that I am posting this while away ministering to married couples at the Nazareth camp in Quebec. I would say ‘isn’t it ironic’, but I don’t want all those people who make fun of Alanis Morissette to turn their pedantic mockery on me.

Oh, how this little passage from the Lord goes against our grain today. How we buckle and strain against this, how we look for a loophole, an out, an escape clause. I remember distinctly my first seminary essay in moral theology where we were asked to discuss ‘is the Sermon on the Mount relevant in the modern world’.

My response, which the professor didn’t appreciate was that the question is not whether or not the Sermon on the Mount is relevant to us, but rather is our life relevant to the Sermon on the Mount! And that remains my position, come hell or high water. That divorce and remarriage are so utterly the norm, so utterly prevalent in our world today means that our lives are increasingly irrelevant to the Sermon on the Mount… and that is a serious problem indeed.

Now of course, the obvious caveats. Situations of serious abuse must not be endured. The call to self-preservation is morally antecedent to the call to stay in conjugal union. And of course, so often we see in our world today that one spouse initiates the divorce and essentially abandons the other against his or her will.

But… the Gospel is the Gospel. Marriage is marriage, and Jesus has forbidden divorce. Not the Church: Jesus. Accept the authority of Christ or don’t, but don’t pretend He hasn’t said what He has said, eh?

It occurs to me in all this business of marriage and divorce and remarriage, which I do realize is so very painful for so very many people, that again we have to put all this in the big picture of our whole relationship with Christ and our call to communion with and in Him. If we see it as just a cold moral law coming to us either from a heaven unmarked by the failure of love and unity or from a Church run by celibate men, then it is indeed a painful and unbearable burden.

But if we see it as deeply connected to our call to communion with God and His utter commitment to communion with us, then it shifts somewhat, don’t you think? Still painful, yes, and the failure of a relationship can be nothing but cruciform for any of us. But in the divine context, the divine milieu, it does shift. The whole mystery of marriage, its success and its failure, becomes a place of sharing God’s life and God’s love, God’s desire for union, and the suffering of the cross God endured due to lack of union.

We have to go there in our thinking and living of this matter of marriage and divorce—it’s more than a little relevant, don’t you think? 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Cheer Up, Lads!

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Matthew 5: 27-30

Reflection – (I am away at the Nazareth family camp this week, but left the blog on automatic post-pilot.)

The Sermon on the Mount continues, and the ‘hits’ just keep on coming! The light of faith shines very brightly in this passage indeed, perhaps so brightly that we might draw back a bit from it – it hurts a wee bit.

Now we have to be clear about this. Sexual desire, and the first movements of sexual attraction that are an essential component of our embodied selves, of what God has made a human being to be, is not what the Lord is talking about here. Man is attracted to woman; woman is attracted to man. If a man or woman who is attractive to you is before you, you are… well, attracted! This is not sin; this is human nature.

There is no lust inherent in this. Lust is when that basic attraction is corrupted into a desire to use, to possess, when the mind and the heart seize upon the person and reduce him or her to an object for pleasure. And the Lord is clear and uncompromising here, as He is in the rest of the Sermon: it is not simply when this terminates in exterior impure action that this becomes sinful, but already when it is an interior disposition of the heart.

Here, as with all of the sermon, the Lord is calling us to a depth of purification that can only be possible in the context of our whole relationship with Him in the Spirit. Yesterday it was all about being utterly purified of hatred and anger; today it is our desires being purified of lust. The light of faith does not just beat upon and illuminate our actions; it penetrates the very depths of our hearts and shows us what’s really going on in there.

But this would be too much for us if it was a pitiless light, a cruel and judgmental light. But the light of faith is the light of mercy, and the light of grace which does not merely show us what we are doing wrong, but shows us the way to righteousness. And this way is the way of prayer and fasting, almsgiving and mercy, and total abandonment to Jesus Christ.

In our hyper-sexualized, eroticized and at least mildly p0rnographic world the purification of desire is no small thing. Most men today, before they have had any capacity to choose and grow in the virtue of chastity, have already been corrupted by at least some exposure to indecent images. More and more men from a very early age have been ensnared by the siren imagery of the internet and have a serious problem indeed with lust in the heart.

There is a terrible defilement of innocence, a seduction of youth that is deliberate and determined in all this. And all of us are called to really engage the struggle for purity in a new intensity and focus; I don’t think it’s ever been more difficult, honestly.

At the same time, I believe God is never outdone in generosity, and the mercies of the Lord are inexhaustible, bottomless. So, if any guys are reading this and feeling heavy burdened by the struggle and perhaps the guilt of repeated failure—cheer up! God loves you, His mercy is upon us all, and His help is sure and secure. Keep fighting, and let us all pray for one another and for our culture, that purity of heart and chastity of body and mind may be restored and perfected for us all.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

On the Road Again, But Continuing to Blog

Well, I'm on the road again. This time I'm going to St. Gabriel, Quebec, for a week of ministry with the Nazareth family apostolate. I enjoy this kind of work immensely, but nonetheless ask your prayers for the families I will be with.
Meanwhile, I'm doing the same thing with the blog I did last time, when I was at Cana. Namely, I have written seven posts all scheduled to appear at precisely 7:00 a.m. each day I am away. For those of you who come to the blog via Facebook and Twitter, my posts will not appear on your news feeds, as I have to do that job manually and I am not here to do it. But I'm sure you would hate to miss the thrilling instalments of my journey through the Sermon on the Mount, so you'll just have to remember to come here somehow.
I have put comments on moderation, as I'm not here to receive and respond to them. Comments left will only be posted a week from now.

The Entry Fee

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
Matthew 5:23-26

Reflection – As we go through the Sermon on the Mount carefully, bit by bit, to see what light of faith it sheds on our light, the going can get a bit rough sometimes. This passage, for instance. The Lord seems to come to us with a set of priorities that is just a leetle different from our priorities.

We are used to being at odds with people, in some degree of hostility with this person or that person, and just shrugging it off and moving on with life. After all, you can’t get along with everyone, and some people are really jerks, right? Just leave it alone and move along.

The Lord doesn’t seem inclined to leave it alone and move on. In fact, he seems to be telling us that being at enmity with another person is such a problem that it affects our ability to worship God – we are to be reconciled before we can offer our gifts at the altar.

Well, this is mighty uncomfortable. Especially since it is not always clear, we know, just how to be reconciled with this person or that person. Sometimes they don’t want to be reconciled with us, or there is some profound matter of justice that needs to be redressed, or other times people have moved on and they are no longer within reach to be reconciled.

Well, the Lord knows all that, of course. Nobody understands the complexities of human relationships more than the God who fashioned the human heart. It seems to me, though, that the challenge of the Gospel stands, nonetheless, and serves a crucial role in the inner purification of our minds and hearts.
It is all too easy for us to say, when faced with a difficult relationship or a painful rupture of peace and harmony with another, ‘To hell with them! They’re dead to me! Too bad, so sad, loser!’ Or words to that effect. But that is the one thing the Gospel tells us we cannot do, no matter what the circumstances and whether or not a full reconciliation is practical and possible.

We cannot write people off and expect our communion with God to flow freely. We cannot close the door to any person, any human being, and expect the door to heaven to swing freely open to us. Heaven is God, and God is love for all people, and so how can we think we’re going to march into heaven if we have deliberately excluded one human being from our love?

Oh yes, the light of faith is a bright one, hurting our eyes and making us sweat a bit. When someone has hurt us deeply, done something truly vile to us or to someone we love, we are nonetheless called to reach out in love somehow, even if only with the prayer and intention of our hearts. And all the people who annoy us, contradict us, anger us in the normal course of the day—even more so we are commanded here to seek and strive to love and embrace them, again if only in the silence of our hearts.

God did that for all of us, and it led Him to die on the Cross for us. So of course this work of love is hard and will involve some degree of suffering for us. Welcome to Christianity! But the door that opens when we do this is a door out of which pours life and light, music and song, joy and celebration—like the door of the father’s house in the parable of the prodigal son.

There is a great joyous feast awaiting us, but the entry fee is our determined resolution to love and be reconciled with every human being on the face of the earth, without exception. This is the call of the Gospel; this is the sworn duty of each Christian striving to follow Christ in this world.