Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Question of the Letter 'O'

We’re on the home stretch of going through Pope Francis’ pre-Christmas (!) address to the Roman Curia. For those arriving late to the party, I am doing this because I was rather horrified at the social media response to that address of ‘Yay, Pope Francis! Stick it to those jerks in the Vatican! Woohoo!’

Yeah, no. When a figure on the global scale of the Pope offers an examination of conscience like this, the right response to it is not, ‘Look at those guys squirm!’ but ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.’ And so I have been going through the Pope’s fifteen spiritual diseases one by one, and using them as a springboard for personal examination.
We are up to disease thirteen, which is the:

disease of hoarding. When an apostle tries to fill an existential void in his heart by accumulating material goods, not out of need but only in order to feel secure. The fact is that we are not able to bring material goods with us, since “the winding sheet does not have pockets”, and all our earthly treasures – even if they are gifts – will never be able to fill that void; instead, they will only make it deeper and more demanding.

To these persons the Lord repeats: “You say, I am rich, I have prospered and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked. So be zealous and repent” (Rev 3:17, 19). Accumulating goods only burdens and inexorably slows down the journey! Here I think of an anecdote: the Spanish Jesuits used to describe the Society of Jesus as the “light brigade of the Church”. I remember when a young Jesuit was moving, and while he was loading a truck full of his many possessions, suitcases, books, objects and gifts, an old Jesuit standing by was heard to say with a smile: And this is “the light brigade of the Church”? Our moving can be a sign of this disease.

At first glance this disease seems to refer specifically to those in consecrated life, those with vows or promises of poverty (like me!). Indeed we who have freely chosen to take up that particular call of austerity and dispossession must constantly examine not only our consciences but our drawers and closets, our shelves and rooms, as material goods do seem to have a way of accumulating, even without our direct intention to have them do so.

It is a well known truism in my community of Madonna House that being transferred from one house to another is the great invitation to take stock and pare down one’s possessions. Those of us who find ourselves in long-term assignments have to be doubly vigilant, then.

So this disease of hoarding is one that I know religious and other types of consecrated have to be watchful of. What about the rest of you guys? Are the laity off the hook, and able then to acquire and hoard freely? Is that the general idea of Christian life—that the consecrated live austerely while the laity stack up possessions without any brake or qualms?

I don’t think so – do you? The sin of avarice (read all about it in my new book!) applies to all of us, don’t you think? The rich fool in Luke’s parable (Lk 12) is a lay man, after all. As is the rich man who denied Lazarus even a crust of bread (Lk 16). And that is the heart of the matter—the world’s goods are given to us for our use for our need; to store up and stock up beyond our reasonable need is to deprive and deny the poor, and if the Lord taught us one thing clearly in His life among us, it is that to deny the poor is to deny God.

It does bear witness, as the Pope says, to a spiritual emptiness, something amiss in our relationship with God, our trust in Him. So if we see ourselves constantly expanding our tents to make room for the next shipment of goods, it is a call on our part to prayer and fasting, interior examination and spiritual renewal. Material good is not our security; God is our security. In English, one little letter makes all the difference – but to remove that little ‘o’ can be quite a battle.

While the battle is fought on the front of how many clothes are in our closet or how many nice things are in our house, we have to be aware that the spiritual ramifications are immense and urgent—do I believe in God, or don’t I? Is He my all-in-all or not? Where is my security? And what about the poor? Big stuff, big questions, and eternal life hangs upon them.

So no, questions of poverty, avarice, hoarding, and generosity are not only for those with vows or promises. It is a basic Christian stance towards reality, which plays out in the concrete and very material choices we make each day, buying and selling, giving and taking, keeping and losing. Let us pray to choose wisely and well, mindful of Who we are really choosing or failing to choose in it all.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

What Are We Supposed To Do About Baltimore?

Arise — go! Sell all you possess. Give it directly, personally to the poor. Take up My cross (their cross) and follow Me, going to the poor, being poor, being one with them, one with Me.
Little — be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike.
Preach the Gospel with your life — without compromise! Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you.
Do little things exceedingly well for love of Me.
Love... love... love, never counting the cost.
Go into the marketplace and stay with Me. Pray, fast. Pray always, fast.
Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbour’s feet. Go without fear into the depth of men’s hearts. I shall be with you.
Pray always. I will be your rest.
The Little Mandate of Madonna House

Preach the Gospel with your life – without compromise – The Little Mandate, which we are going through piece meal on this blog on (most) Tuesdays, in fact came to Catherine Doherty in a similar piecemeal fashion. Word by word, phrase by phrase, over a long stretch of time; it was only at the end of the process that she put all of them together into the above order.

Today’s phrase—preach the Gospel with your life, without compromise—came differently from most of them. Catherine, while she was trying to discern what God was doing in her life, worked for the archdiocese of Toronto for a year. In the same period, she ran study groups out of her home, bringing people together to study the social encyclicals of the Church and to discuss social problems of the day. This was the 1930s, and there were no shortage of the latter.

Catherine recounts that often, at the end of a long discussion about this or that problem, this or that aspect of Catholic social teaching, she would find herself saying “The answer is simple—we have to preach the Gospel with our life!” When people would press her as to what that meant, she would say, “That means without compromising it!”

People would continue to press her as to how to do that, and that would lead us into next week’s blog post on the Mandate (stay tuned!). But I find it significant that at least this one line of the Mandate comes directly out of Catherine’s engagement with the deep social problems of her day—unemployment, social inequality, injustice, war and the threat of war, racism, and the like.

Sound familiar? Baltimore is burning as I write this. There are terrible problems afflicting the world, problems which seem intractable, unsolvable. It is hard to get even people of good will to even agree on what the problems are, what causes them and how to fix them. People of ill will are of course, part of the problem.

Is it enough to say that the answer is for you and me to preach the Gospel with our life, without compromise? To take what the Lord says to us in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and rather than thinking about it, talking about it, writing about it—do it? Turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give your cloak, forgive your enemy, give to all without charge, love as He loved us?

This is Madonna House’s answer, this our response to the pain and violence and hatred and anger and injustice of the world. It is a daunting answer, and none of us in MH would ever claim that we do it in full. But we try, we do try.

Catherine’s spiritual director in the 1940s, Fr. Paul Furfey, once said to her in a letter that lots of people want to help the world in easy ways, but the easy ways do not work. Very few people are willing to do the hard things, the total commitment, the complete gift needed to make any real difference in the world, but those few have an influence that is disproportionate to themselves.

So when we see Baltimore burning, the Middle East bathed in blood, a massacre here, terror there, we can feel quite helpless. But we are not helpless. Take the Gospel of Jesus Christ and see where we can, where we must, put it into practice today, in the real situations of our real life. If every baptized person in the world did this, the whole place would be transformed in a week. So let’s you and I start doing it, and see where that takes us, why don’t we?

Monday, April 27, 2015

Something Bigger Than Whiskers

I will bless the Lord at all times; 
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
 My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad.
 Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!
 I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.

Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed.
 This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him 
and saved him out of all his troubles.

The angel of the Lord encamps 
around those who fear him, and delivers them.
 Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! 
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!

 Oh, fear the Lord, you his saints, for those who fear him have no lack!
 The young lions suffer want and hunger; 
but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.
 Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
 What man is there who desires life 
and loves many days, that he may see good?..

 The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.
 Many are the afflictions of the righteous, 
but the Lord delivers him out of them all.
 He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken..
 The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.
Psalm 34

Reflection – OK, I’m back. And back with one of my favourite psalms of all, one of (in my view) the most beautiful and poignant pieces of biblical poetry and prayer there is. I often assign this psalm as a penance in confession, and return to it often in my personal prayer.

This psalm captures the essential spiritual attitude that must be at the heart of our life, and that spiritual attitude is praise and thanksgiving. This is always important, but all the more important when life in the world or in our own personal lives is hard and painful.

The world is full of troubles right now. Be it simple tragedies like the earthquake in Nepal, or the genuinely horrific evil of terrorism and brutal violence in the Middle East and Africa, or the various complex and painful social ills and evils confronting us here in North America, there is little ‘good news’ in the news we read these days. As well, we all have our personal problems and sorrows, big and little, which can darken our minds and hearts at any time.

To praise God in the face of all this may seem a bit polyanna-ish, a bit ‘whistle a happy tune’ or ‘these are a few of my favourite things’—a flight from reality into positive thinking, some kind of head trip to fool oneself into feeling better. To say that, when one’s own personal problems and sorrows are mounting especially high, praise should be particularly intense in one’s own life, seems almost perverse—like the more pain you are in, the more you should try to smile and laugh.

If it were just a matter of positive thinking, of raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, the objection would hold. But that is not what praising God is, really. To praise God in the face of evils and sorrows of all kinds is to make a deep act of faith and trust in the reality of God, that God is real, is here, is acting, that there is a whole bigger and broader field of being (admittedly almost entirely concealed from us) in which there is great good, cause for hope, reason to rejoice.

Pain and suffering focus the mind on themselves and on their immediate cause. When we stub our toe, our whole world becomes, for a brief moment, The Toe, and the stupid thing we just stubbed it on (Drat it! Drat it to heck!). All suffering, and certainly the very big and calamitous sorrows of life and of the world, has that effect on us—the entire world is defined by my grief, by this evil, by that sorrow.

Aside from personal sufferings and sorrows, those who are involved in various types of social activism have to be vigilant about this. Yes, there are great evils happening in the world, like abortion (for example). But… the whole world is not defined by this evil. Countless men and women welcome their children into life, even in difficult circumstances, and even in the most tragic wrong choices women make to have an abortion, the mercy of God is poured forth in unstinting measure.

There is always a bigger reality, in other words. And it is praise and thanksgiving, rapturous ecstatic praise that opens the door, at least, to that bigger reality, allows us to stand in whatever pain and evil we find ourselves in and not be overwhelmed by it. Allows us to see that God is—that God is bigger, that God is acting, that God is in the end victorious over it all. Praise is our looking to him and growing radiant, our tasting and seeing the goodness of the Lord, our faith in his deliverance of the poor. It is utterly and essentially central to a healthy, whole spiritual life.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Where in the World is Fr. Denis Lemieux?

So... not blogging so much these days, am I? I'm taking an unscheduled week off from the blog, folks, as upon my return to MH from the prairies I diagnosed myself with an acute case of the tireds.

Basically, my brain is as close to flat-lining as it can be and still maintain automatic functions like breathing, and my creativity is absolutely null. So... no blog for the week.

For those who know me personally and may worry about me a bit... don't. It's just been a very busy and full winter-spring season, and my fatigue level is perfectly natural and normal. I will be back on the block, and the blog, Monday morning sharp with a fresh round of psalms, mandates, examens, round-ups and much, much more.

Meanwhile... all the best to you... and if you're desperate to read my words, don't forget to pick up a copy of Idol Thoughts, today!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Little Way on the Prairies

So, I left off on the blogging for a few days – my week at the St. Therese Institute in Bruno SK was very blessed and wonderful, but also very full indeed, and by the latter days of the week, my energy was pretty much taken up by the life and work there.

I normally do a ‘this week in Madonna House’ wrap-up around the weekend, but since I wasn’t at MH at all, I would rather talk about STI and what I experienced there. I don’t usually highlight places I go and things I do on this blog, but I would like to share a bit about this remarkable place.

The St. Therese Institute for Faith and Mission has been operating since 2007, in a former Ursuline convent in Bruno SK, about one hour west of Saskatoon. It has two aspects, the School of Faith and Mission, and the Healing and Growth Center. I was involved with the first, and so will only mention the second. The Center runs healing retreats and prayer ministry throughout the year, and I have heard nothing but good about it.

I was involved with the school of faith and mission, and was wildly impressed with it. This is a nine month program for young adults of intensive faith formation. As of a year ago, it is a two-year program, although the majority of the students only do the first year, and it is complete unto itself.

The young people live in community. They have a series of courses throughout the year on Catholic doctrine, Scripture, apologetics, spirituality. They have a vibrant life of prayer—morning prayer and Mass, adoration and rosary, praise and worship every day. They have personal individual spiritual and pastoral guidance and accompaniment.

The spirituality is very much the Little Way of St. Therese, with a healthy dose of MH spirituality (Poustinia and People of the Towel and Water are part of the core curriculum). Jim Anderson, the director of the school and a long-time friend of MH, explains that St. Therese teaches us what to live; Catherine Doherty explains how to live it. There is also a strong Ignatian component to the formation, with significant formation on the principles of discernment.

This was my second year out there, offering a week-long class to the second year students on the theology of liturgy and worship. The first six months of the program they have longer ‘semester’ style courses; the last three months they have intensive week-long ones. The first years, for example, had a seminar on ecumenical dialogue and apologetics. This coming week, the first years will have the first of two weeks on Ignatian discernment; the second years will have adult catechetics.

It is a wonderful place! The spirit is lively, joyful, free and fun. The students are a very impressive group—the second years who I was with were engaged, serious, thoughtful, and very sharp.

There are many great things happening in the Canadian Catholic scene right now – CCO, NET ministries, the Companions of the Cross, the Franciscans of Halifax, just to name a few (and, ahem, Madonna House plugging away with our Nazareth life in the midst of them all). But add to the mix St. Therese Institute—a prime example of the New Evangelization, and a serious formator of young Catholics seeking to be part of the New Evangelization. It can easily grow and accommodate many more students than they currently have (about 35 this year between the two years), and I just wanted to share with my blog readers this fine formation program for young Catholic adults on the Canadian prairies.